As anticipated, the judge presiding over the “monkey selfie” copyright case has dismissed the complaint for copyright infringement brought by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), ostensibly on behalf of a crested black macaque that PETA named “Naruto.” This was all but a foregone conclusion after the Hon. William H. Orrick of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California announced at a hearing that he did not believe that the Copyright Act confers any standing on animals own copyrights or to sue for copyright infringement.
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Last week, the judge entered a final written order dismissing the case. The legal basis is a lack of standing, that is to say, unless a dispute involves two parties that the law recognizes as having the right to adjudicate the disagreement in court, a federal court cannot hear the case. Here, defendant Blurb, Inc. had argued that the Copyright Act cannot be read to confer any ownership rights in a copyright on animals (Blurb published a the photograph by British nature photographer David Slater). If a party lacks an ownership interest in a copyrighted work, then that person cannot sue to enforce it—he or she is a legal stranger to the dispute. Assuming for the sake of argument that the animal took the photograph and that Blurb reproduced it without the animal’s permission (however that might be obtained), Blurb argued that the animal has no right to come to court.
The court easily agreed:
Here, the Copyright Act does not “plainly” extend the concept of authorship or statutory standing to animals. To the contrary, there is no mention of animals anywhere in the Act. The Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit have repeatedly referred to “persons” or “human beings” when analyzing authorship under the Act.
The court also pointed with deference to the now oft-cited Compendium of the U.S. Copyright Office which states that it will not register a “photograph taken by a monkey.” As I’ve said before I think that last part is potentially an overstatement, but not because the animal has standing, rather, the artist who gives the animal the camera might. But that was not this case, in any event.
The order is restrained and to the point with regard to the proper way to interpret a statute or change its reach:
Naruto is not an “author” within the meaning of the Copyright Act. Next Friends argue that this result is “antithetical” to the “tremendous [public] interest in animal art.” Opp. at 12. Perhaps. But that is an argument that should be made to Congress and the President, not to me. The issue for me is whether Next Friends have demonstrated that the Copyright Act confers standing upon Naruto. In light of the plain language of the Copyright Act, past judicial interpretations of the Act’s authorship requirement, and guidance from the Copyright Office, they have not.
PETA surely expected this result in the District Court, which could not reasonably have come out any other way. Likely to follow is an appeal to the Ninth Circuit and an argument that the Act should be read differently.