No monkeying around: Court weighs if animal owns its selfies

Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), speaks to reporters outside of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Wednesday, July 12, 2017. Attorneys for David Slater, a wildlife photographer whose camera was used by a monkey to snap selfies, asked a federal appeals court to end a lawsuit seeking to give the animal rights to the photos. PETA sought a court order in 2015 allowing it to administer all proceeds from the photos to benefit the monkey. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A curious monkey with a toothy grin and a knack for pressing a camera button was back in the spotlight as a federal appeals court on Wednesday questioned lawyers fighting about an animal’s ability to hold a copyright to selfie photos.

Naruto is a free-living crested macaque who snapped the pictures with an unattended camera in Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 2011. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said Naruto was accustomed to cameras and took the selfies when he saw himself in the reflection of the lens.

PETA sued British nature photographer David Slater, whose camera the monkey used, and a San Francisco-based self-publishing company Blurb, which put out a book called “Wildlife Personalities” that includes the photos.

The animal rights organization wants to administer all proceeds from the photos to benefit the monkey. Slater’s company holds the British copyright for the photos, and he says it should be honored worldwide.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco appeared puzzled by PETA’s role in the case, asking the group’s attorney why it should be allowed to represent the monkey’s interests.

Attorney David Schwarz said the question had not been raised in court previously, and he urged the panel to define authorship for copyright purposes.

The judges did not issue a ruling.

Angela Dunning, attorney for Blurb, said the self-publishing company was confident it would prevail but wondered at the possibility if it did not.

“Where does it end? If a monkey can sue for copyright infringement, what else can a monkey do?” she said.

Dunning said Naruto can’t hold copyright in part because he cannot grant permission to others to use his photos and can’t benefit financially from the pictures. The monkey, she said, is “blissfully unaware” of what’s happening in court.

A federal judge ruled against the monkey last year, saying there was no indication that Congress intended to extend copyright protection to animals.

PETA’s general counsel Jeff Kerr said after the hearing that the group has plans to use money from the photos to protect monkey habitats and help people study the species.

“PETA is clearly representing Naruto’s best interests,” he said.

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