My career comes full circle:

Techdirt asks: Can A Monkey License Its Copyrights To A News Agency? Apparently, David Slater, a well-known nature photographer, left his camera on the ground in an Indonesian national park, and a macaque monkey walked over and snapped a bunch of photos, including this (remarkable!) self-portrait:


Two of the photos in the set of monkey self-portraits bear a copyright notice: “Copyright Caters News Service. Raising the odd but interesting question: who assigned the copyright to the News Service? Slater? Perhaps, but that can’t be a valid assignment, for the simple reason that he doesn’t own the copyright just because his camera was used to snap the photo.

That leaves the monkey.

The question is not an entirely ridiculous one — well, OK, it is a ridiculous one, but it is at least closely related to some very difficult and interesting copyright questions concerning the requirement (if there is one) that human creativity is a requirement for copyright to exist in a work of authorship — questions that come up in contexts ranging from the ridiculous (creations by psychics ostensibly “channeling” voices from beyond the grave, animal creations — monkey photos, elephant drawings, chimpanzee-created music) to the sublime (the copyright status of works “authored” by computer programs or Artifical Intelligence engines). (My friend and colleague Annemarie Bridy recently sent me a very interesting draft of an article exploring these issues, soon to be published, entitled “Coding Creativity: Copyright and the Artificially Intelligent Author”).

But what I love about this little story is that it plumbing its metaphysical depths clearly calls for analysis by someone with deep expertise in (a) primate behavior and (b) copyright law — and guess who that might be?! Yes, it’s true – having spent two years in the Kenyan bush back in the 1970s studying the feeding and ranging behavior of the yellow baboon, and a decade or so writing and teaching in the field of primatology and evolutionary biology, and then the last 15 years working on questions of copyright law and other IP matters, I finally have found the one question that I’m uniquely positioned to answer. I suppose my next step is to send the monkey a short note introducing myself and offering to represent him in his copyright battles with Slater and the Caters News Agency, demanding that his authorship rights be respected and recognized. I’d advise him/her to take a bushel of bananas (33% of which go to me, thank you very much) in return for a covenant not to sue and an irrevocable assignment of all copyright rights in the photos.

[Thanks to Fred Wilf and Diana Lin for the pointer]

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