What do you get when you put a monkey and a camera together? One of the strangest lawsuits to land on a docket in a long time. A lawsuit that PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, recently argued deserves its day in court.

First, here’s a quick recap of the facts that got us here because there are fascinating twists involved:

  • Four years ago, while in Indonesia photographing crested macaque monkeys, photographer David Slater stepped away from his camera and tripod to see what the animals would do.
  • A macaque managed to capture itself in the now-(in)famous “monkey selfie.”
  • Slater published a book of photos from his trip, which included the monkey selfie. He also assumed that he was the copyright holder because he had set up the shot, and attempted to license it when the photo went viral; however, this was debated and widely dismissed because he didn’t actually take the picture and was, therefore, not the author under the law.

But if he wasn’t, who was?

The presumption under copyright law in the U.S. has always been that only humans can be authors. The photo is now considered to be in the public domain and free for anyone to use without Slater’s permission. PETA didn’t agree. In September, the organization sued Slater and the self-publishing service he used, on behalf of the monkey, called Naruto in the suit, claiming that its copyright was infringed upon when the photo was used in the book. PETA is seeking damages from sales and licenses of the monkey selfie, which will go to the preserve that houses the crested macaques in Indonesia.

Then, the situation got even weirder, believe it or not. Slater described the monkey that took the photo as a female in the book, but Naruto is a male monkey. So, PETA may not even have the right “plaintiff,” an issue that was brought up in defendants’ motion to dismiss.

In its 27-page response brief filed on December 4th, PETA argued that animal litigants should be recognized like other nonhuman entities, such as corporations and partnerships (the most glaring problem here, of course, is that those entities are still run by humans). It also argued that Naruto fits what the Copyright Act considers an “author” because the act of taking the photo would make it a copyright holder if it were a human, so it should be treated that way.

It’s hard to dispute that the law was meant to include animals. Copyright protection gives creators assurances that they will have exclusive control over their works for a significant amount of time and be able to benefit from it. Naruto would neither have taken the photo if not for the camera happening to be there nor published it for gain. Also, the animal has suffered no loss, so it didn’t have “standing” to sue to begin with. Stated plainly, the monkey, whether it’s the right one or not, doesn’t even know what any of this means.

Stayed tuned to our blog to see how it all plays out.