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Too much monkey business

11 August 2014

Gloucestershire based photographer David Slater was in Indonesia in 2011 taking wildlife photographs of a crested black macaque, when he decided to test the monkey’s innate curiosity.

He set up the camera and stepped away, leaving the trigger behind.

As it happens the monkey turned out to be a competent photographer, and there were many fantastic ‘selfies’, including one which appeared to show the macaque as grinning. This went viral and Mr Slater and the selfie received a considerable amount of media attention, appearing on websites, and in newspapers and television shows.

However, Mr Slater is now in dispute with Wikipedia, after they added the famous photograph to its database of online images, which are royalty free. Mr Slater has objected to this, claiming that he has the rights to the image and they are infringing his copyright. He is obviously concerned about the loss of royalties he would otherwise earn.

The Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA) provides that a photographer will own the copyright on any photos he has taken, unless it is taken by an employee of a business for which the photos are taken, or if there is an agreement that assigns the copyright to another party.

However, Wikipedia are disputing the fact that Mr Slater is the photographer. They point out that the photographer was in fact the monkey, but as copyright cannot vest in a non-human, the photo falls into the public domain. Naturally, Mr Slater does not accept this, and cites the fact that he played a substantial part in setting up the photograph. However, Wikipedia are refusing to remove the image from its database.

It is unclear if this matter will ever be decided before the courts, but gives rise to a number of interesting legal points. For example, if the monkey does not own the copyright then who does, and does the issue fall under UK, US or indeed Indonesian law?

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Paul Gordon LLB
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