A view from Dave Trott: Making a monkey of the law
A view from Dave Trott

Making a monkey of the law

David Slater is a wildlife photographer, so in 2011 he went to Indonesia.

He spent a lot of time living among monkeys, getting them to feel comfortable with him.

One particular monkey came right up to the lens and grinned, showing a mouthful of teeth.

David Slater held the tripod while the monkey pressed the button.

And he got an amusing monkey selfie.

He thought people would pay to use the picture which would at least cover the cost of his trip.

But it didn’t work out like that.

Two sites, Techdirt and Wikipedia, did begin using the photo.

But when David Slater asked them to pay, they refused.

They said he didn’t own the copyright, the monkey did.

And this is where we step through the looking glass.

According to American law, whoever presses the button owns the copyright – whether they’re human or not.

At this point PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, decided to get involved.

They filed a lawsuit on behalf of the monkey, a six-year-old male called Naruto.

Judge N. Randy Smith wanted to know what sort of relationship PETA had with Naruto that allowed them to represent him.

Especially as monkeys have no way to acquire or hold money?

Then Judge Carlos Bea questioned how copyright would pass to Naruto’s heirs, "In the world of monkeys, does legitimacy and illegitimacy even exist?"

Clearly the entire case was nonsense.

But PETA appealed every objection and the case dragged on.

And as long as PETA kept David Slater tied up in court he couldn’t make any money from the picture.

PETA had deeper pockets than David Slater and after two years he was forced to settle.

They agreed 25% of all future revenue from the picture will go to a fund for the monkey (which PETA will oversee).

David Slater’s case provides a valuable lesson for all creatives working in the media.

The law isn’t about what’s sensible or what’s right.

Like everything else, it’s about who wins.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.