When posed with the question of whether monkeys can copyright their self-portraits, the United States Copyright Office has finally spoken out, and the answer is a resounding “no.” The Copyright Office’s latest manual edition – the first major update in more than 30 years – unequivocally states that only humans can obtain copyrights. Specifically, the manual says that the Office “will not register works produced by nature, animals or plants.” That simple statement lets the wind out of the sails for what could have been a burgeoning, niche intellectual property subset.
You may be asking yourself why it is that the Copyright Office had occasion to ponder this esoteric point at all, and you’re not alone in that. Interestingly enough, a newsworthy controversy has been brewing for some time over a picture that British photographer David Slater attempted to copyright following a trip to Indonesia in 2010. During that trip, Slater’s camera was commandeered by a cheeky macaque that, among other things, snapped a smiling self-portrait.
A dispute arose between Slater and Wikimedia (the parent company to the immensely popular Wikipedia website), when the company included the monkey’s “selfie” in its royalty-free photo collection. Slater requested that the photo be removed, but Wikimedia declined. The company shrewdly reasoned that a picture taken by an animal cannot be copyrighted, and the U.S. Copyright Office apparently agrees.
Though the “human authors” only provision isn’t a new one, this is the first time in which the Office has pointed out that copyrights and all the protections they offer are only available on works produced by human hands. This begs the question whether other animal-created works that have been profitable in the past (including artwork created by zoo-bound elephants and monkeys that have made tens of thousands of dollars for various non-profit institutions over the years) will be possible again in the future.