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If A Monkey Takes A Photo, Who Owns The Copyright?

An argument is brewing between British photographer David Slater and the folks at Wikimedia over who owns the rights to a photo a monkey took with Slater's equipment. The website says the famous photo should be freely distributed, because it believes the animal's self-portrait isn't bound by copyright law.

The dispute stems from 2011, when Slater's wildlife photography field trip to Indonesia produced a striking image of a smiling crested black macaque; another image shows it holding the camera. The story went viral, with Slater explaining that a group of macaques had taken over his equipment for a bit during the three days he spent in their company.

As he told The Telegraph back then:

"One of them must have accidentally knocked the camera and set it off because the sound caused a bit of a frenzy.

"At first there was a lot of grimacing with their teeth showing because it was probably the first time they had ever seen a reflection.

"They were quite mischievous jumping all over my equipment, and it looked like they were already posing for the camera when one hit the button."

Slater added that the primates took hundreds of photos, most of them out of focus. By far the most famous of them was the grinning female macaque's "selfie" that was then licensed for use by many media outlets.

The Telegraph gave us an update on the story this week, saying Wikimedia had refused to change the image's open-copyright classification. Slater tells the newspaper that he went through a great deal of effort — and money — to get the photo, noting that he traveled to the area and set up the camera.

"That trip cost me about £2,000 for that monkey shot," he says. "Not to mention the £5,000 of equipment I carried, the insurance, the computer stuff I used to process the images."

But the folks at Wikimedia don't agree that Slater is the photo's author — and they refused his request to remove the image from the Wikimedia Commons section for open-source material.

Perhaps you're thinking that if Slater doesn't own the photo's copyright, then the monkey does. But as GigaOM reports, "the editors at Wikimedia (which manages the library of more than 22 million images and videos associated with the open-source encyclopedia) rejected the photographer's demands because they believe that no one holds the copyright. A monkey can't hold the rights to an image — or anything else, for that matter — because they aren't human, and therefore don't have the legal standing required to do so."

Slater notes that a court case might be the only way to resolve the authorship and ownership issues. If that occurs, it's unlikely that the macaque would be represented in the proceedings — or in the debate its brief career as a photographer has set off.

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