Monkey business with a camera sparks copyright debate

If a monkey actually takes the shot, who owns the copyright?

Never mind the infinite monkey theorem reproducing Shakespeare, what we have here is a lone black macaque commandeering a photographer's unattended camera to shoot a few amusing pictures ... and touch off a copyright debate in the process.

Photographer David Slater was at the center of the monkey business while on a shoot in Indonesia.

At the center of the copyright debate is Techdirt, which claims that its publication of the photos is covered by fair use even if Slater, his photo agency -- or even the monkey -- can claim copyright, which Techdirt argues they can't.

The photo agency has sent Techdirt a letter asking that the images be removed from its site. Techdirt has told the photo agency to go pound sand.

Great fun.  

While possessing no legal training, I am paid to have opinions, so here are a few of mine:

Putting copyright law aside, these photographs clearly belong to Slater in the generally accepted sense of belonging. The camera is his. He brought it to Indonesia. He placed it - however unintentionally -- so as to be accessed by the monkey. He was there throughout the shoot. He retrieved the photos from his camera once he regained possession of the device.

Absent any single aspect of Slater's participation, the photos are not with us today; in other words, if a monkey takes a picture in the woods and there's no one there to see it, they might as well not exist.

Techdirt is probably on firm ground when asserting that its use of the photos in a blog post examining the copyright issues constitutes fair use.

However, those outlets that used the pictures because they are cute - and there are many - have much less of a case if they are copyrighted.

And, if the photos are indeed not covered by copyright they should be and those rights should belong to Slater. He's a professional photographer and the pictures are a result of his work. The fact that a monkey helped should not be determinative, in large part because I cannot imagine that lawmakers ever sat around contemplating that particular what-if scenario.

But I'll be just fine if it turns out copyright belongs to the monkey.

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