Who owns the copyright of a selfie?

A lawsuit between animal rights activists and a wildlife photographer highlights the complex nature of copyright law.

If a monkey takes a photo of itself on a rogue camera, who owns the copyright? While this may seem like a farfetched hypothetical situation, a recent court case in San Francisco made a decision on just that.

A British wildlife photographer has become embroiled in a court case navigating the nuances of copyright law.

Macaque selfie turns to lawsuit

The photographer, David Slater, was in Indonesia in 2011 in pursuit of the perfect shot of a crested black macaque monkey. One of the monkeys managed to hijack his camera and take hundreds of now-famous selfies.

Mr Slater has been attempting to force Wikimedia Commons to take down the photo through legal action. Mr Slater has been unable to claim he owns the copyright as he did not actually take the photo himself, with Wikimedia refusing to take the photo down from its database.

In its transparency report, Wikimedia acknowledged in January 2014 that there was a request for the photo to be taken down. The report also confirms that it does not agree with Mr Slater that he owns the copyright to the photo, and that the request was denied.

He claims that he owns the copyright to the photo, as he created the unique situation that allowed the photo to be captured. However, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) believe otherwise, and have filed a lawsuit on behalf of the monkey, Naruto.

PETA argue that all of the proceeds should go to Naruto and his community and not Mr Slater and his company, Wildlife Personalities, Ltd.

"If PETA US prevails in this lawsuit, it will be the first time that a non-human animal is declared the owner of property, rather than being declared a piece of property himself or herself," says PETA Director Mimi Bekhechi.

The case highlights the complex nature of copyright law, both abroad and in Australia.

Do you have to take a photo to own the rights to it?Do you have to take a photo to own the rights to it?

Complexity of copyright law

In Australia, copyright law is a free service that protects the unique expression of an idea. This is essential so that businesses, artists and entrepreneurs can maintain design protection as well as control the way their idea is distributed. 

However, due to the free nature of our law, it can be difficult to prove your ideas have been stolen. In light of this, professional guidance can help ensure that your intellectual property is protected and your profits maximised.