Monkey selfie photographer says he’s broke over copyright fight

David Slater has been fighting for years over who has the copyright to photos taken by monkeys using his camera – and says he’s broke as a result

Monkey business over money: British nature photographer David Slater has seen very little cash from the selfie that a macaque took using his camera. Photograph: AP

Monkey business over money: British nature photographer David Slater has seen very little cash from the selfie that a macaque took using his camera. Photograph: AP

 

As a US appeals court heard arguments on Wednesday over whether or not a monkey can own the copyright to a “selfie”, the man whose camera captured the image watched a livestream of the proceedings from his home in Chepstow, Wales.

David Slater, the human photographer, could not afford the airfare to San Francisco to attend the hearing. He also cannot afford to replace his broken camera equipment, has no money to pay the attorney who has been defending him since the crested black macaque sued him in 2015, and is currently exploring other ways to earn an income.

“I’m trying to become a tennis coach,” Slater said on Wednesday. “I’m even thinking about doing dog walking. I don’t make enough money to pay income tax.”

“Every photographer dreams of a photograph like this,” he said of the iconic image of a primate grinning toothily into the lens. “If everybody gave me a pound for every time they used [the photograph], I’d probably have £40 million (€45.3 million) in my pocket . . . The proceeds from these photographs should have me comfortable now, and I’m not.”

Instead, Slater has been embroiled in years of arcane legal wrangling over the nature of authorship and said that he is “seriously on the verge of packing it all in”.

Selfie story

The story of the monkey selfie begins in 2011, when Slater travelled to Sulawesi, Indonesia, and spent several days following and photographing a troop of macaques. Slater has long maintained that the “selfies” were the result of his ingenuity in coaxing the monkeys into pressing the shutter while looking into the lens, after he struggled to get them to keep their eyes open for a wide angle closeup.

“It wasn’t serendipitous monkey behaviour,” he said. “It required a lot of knowledge on my behalf, a lot of perseverance, sweat and anguish and all that stuff.”

The photographs became popular, and Slater said that he earned a few thousand pounds – enough to cover the cost of the trip to Indonesia. But the images became the subject of complicated legal dispute in 2014, when Slater asked the blog Techdirt and Wikipedia to stop using them without permission.

The websites refused, with Wikipedia claiming that the photograph was uncopyrightable because the monkey was the actual creator of the image. The US Copyright Office subsequently ruled that animals cannot own copyrights.

Then in 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) filed a suit against Slater on behalf of the macaque, which it identified as a six-year-old male named Naruto, claiming that the animal was the rightful owner of the copyright. A judge ruled against Peta in 2016, saying that animals were not covered by US copyright laws. Peta appealed to the ninth circuit court of appeals, which began hearing oral arguments on Wednesday.

Among the points of contention were whether Peta has a close enough relationship to Naruto to represent it in court, the value of providing written notice of a copyright claim to a community of macaques, and whether Naruto is actually harmed by not being recognized as a copyright-holder.

“There is no way to acquire or hold money. There is no loss as to reputation. There is not even any allegation that the copyright could have somehow benefited Naruto,” said Judge N Randy Smith. “What financial benefits apply to him? There’s nothing.”

At one point, Judge Carlos Bea considered the question of how copyright passes to an author’s heirs.

“In the world of Naruto, is there legitimacy and illegitimacy?” Judge Bea asked. “Are Naruto’s offspring ‘children’, as defined by the statute?”

For Slater, it was a painfully ironic line of questioning in light of his concerns for his own seven-year-old daughter and his continuing belief that the copyright is his. “I can’t afford to own a car. There’s no camera equipment for her to inherit if I die tomorrow,” he said. “She should inherit this [copyright], but it’s worthless.”

The lawyer for Slater’s publisher, which is also a defendant, also raised the question of whether Peta has even identified the right monkey – something that Slater disputes.

“I know for a fact that [the monkey in the photograph] is a female and it’s the wrong age,” he said. “I’m bewildered at the American court system. Surely it matters that the right monkey is suing me.”

The one consolation for Slater is that he believes that his photograph has helped to save the crested black macaque from extinction.

“These animals were on the way out and because of one photograph, it’s hopefully going to create enough ecotourism to make the locals realize that there’s a good reason to keep these monkeys alive,” Slater said. “The picture hopefully contributed to saving the species. That was the original intention all along.” – (Guardian Service)