If you haven’t seen this photograph before (which is highly unlikely) you might think is that for real? Did a monkey actually take a selfie? The answer is yes! This beaming monkey has attained pop culture popularity in over the past two years. Coming back to business, the reason why the image above is credited to David Slater and not the monkey is the main crux of this article.

Before we get into the general discussion we must first examine the subject case. It was in 2011 that the photographer David Slater left his camera on a tripod and left it among a group of macaques in a wildlife reserve in Indonesia. He was bestowed with a smiling mug shot of the monkey, which Peta (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) later identified as Naruto a 6-year-old macaque of the reserve. This among other images were a future of his book  Wildlife Personalities and this particular image caught in the ‘selfie craze’  and became an instant hit and was even used by Wikipedia without his permission. When he confronted Wikipedia they dismissed his claims and ownership stating that he had not clicked the shutter of the camera hence he was neither the creator nor the lawful owner of the image.

Peta later filed a lawsuit against Mr. Slater, his company, and Blurb (the company that published his book), seeking permission from the judge to allow it to represent the monkey and distribute the image, the proceeds of which would be used for the protection and well being of the macaques, at the sanctuary in Indonesia. This plea when you come to think about it seems fair and almost legitimate. Though the photographer, as well as his lawyer, sought to dismiss the plea stating that animals did not have a legal standing hence the image certainly belonged to him. He had earlier upheld that the British Copyright for his book “Wildlife Personalities” should be recognised and honoured worldwide.

US District Judge William stated in the Federal Court of San Francisco that he had no authority to extend such rights to animals. He set the ball into the court of the Congress stating that “This is an issue for Congress and the president. “If they think animals should have the right of copyright, they’re free, I think, under the Constitution, to do that.”

Should animals be entitled to copyright ownership?

This case is one of those cases that deal with something that is contemporary as well as universal. If Intellectual Property Rights were to be given to animals then the whole I.P framework would undergo a paradigm shift. Think about the whale songs that are recorded by marine biologists or the paintings painted by elephants, or the design of the black widow spider’s web. They are all creations and shouldn’t the author be the owner of it? The stand taken by Peta is a legitimate one, wherein the photographer was getting money for a creation that wasn’t his. It’s like having the copyright of all the photos you took going to the person who owned the camera. It is not about paying royalty or money to the animal, it is about giving the animal some benefit out of the effort. It is about treating animals as living beings capable of rights and not a mere property of someone. It is the same case with babies, they are helpless and unable to rationalise right from wrong, but don’t they get rights; aren’t their rights enforced in the courts? If funding could be generated, in a compulsory and legal way there would be greater efforts into the conservation of biodiversity and would actually be a blessing (not in disguise).

With respect to India too, if animals are given Intellectual Property Rights, the proceeds of which would go for their benefit, it would help in the conservation of the already dwindling wildlife.But as we humans will find a way of making money out of everything, giving animals Intellectual Property Rights might result in their exploitation.There are two sides to this coin and we have to wait and see if it will be a win for Naruto as the appeal goes further.

This article has been authored by Shwetha, an IP Law practitioner.