You have to feel for David Slater. In 2011, the British photographer traveled to Indonesia to take pictures of the crested black macaque, a snouty primate with reddish, somewhat possessed-looking eyes. During the expedition, fortune struck when, in the words of the Telegraph, "one of the animals came up to investigate his equipment, hijacked a camera and took hundreds of selfies." Miraculously, at least one of the shots turned out absolutely superb. Just look at those peepers.
Now, Slater is in a fight with the Wikimedia Foundation, which has posted his photo online and refuses to take it down. It argues that Slater doesn't own the picture's copyright, because he didn't take the picture — the monkey did. As many of us learned thanks to Ellen DeGeneres's Oscars selfie, the copyright on a photograph goes to the person who hits the shutter. But in this case, there was no person. According to copyright professors, Wikimedia is right.
"The photographer doesn't own it. And the monkey doesn't, either. It's in the public domain," says Chris Sprigman, a law professor at New York University. "To copyright a work, an author needs to show they produced it through their own creativity. It doesn't matter if you traveled thousands of miles to capture a photo if you weren't involved in actually snapping it.
"The fact is, copyright's not there to reward people for their labor—it's to incentivize people to create new books or poems," Sprigman adds. "Did this guy need an incentive to produce monkey selfies? No. He needed an incentive to go to Indonesia to take photographs. And by accident, he ended up with monkey selfies. The monkeys didn't need incentives, either. They just did it for the pure pleasure of hearing the shutter click."
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