A dispute between a wildlife photographer from the UK, Mr David Slater, and Wikimedia (the US-based organisation behind Wikipedia) concerning the ownership of the copyright in a “monkey selfie” has recently been the topic of various opinion and controversy online.

The monkey selfie was created during Mr Slater’s trip to Indonesia in 2011. After leaving his camera equipment down, one black macaque monkey picked it up and took several photographs, which included a photograph of the monkey smiling, which in turn attracted considerable attention around the world.

Wikimedia then angered Mr Slater by placing the photograph on the Wikimedia Commons website, its online collection of free images, and refusing his requests to remove the photograph. Mr Slater claims that he owns the copyright in the photograph, and has cited significant financial loss as it is now not necessary for users to pay royalties for its use.  

The dispute presents a couple of interesting talking points. Firstly, the question has arisen as to whether the monkey itself owns the copyright in the photograph. In this regard, the US Copyright Office (USCO) has recently issued new guidance which makes it clear that only works created by a human can be protected in copyright under US law.

Similarly, the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) has stated that, under UK law, animals cannot own copyright. Therefore, although the positions adopted by the USCO and the UKIPO do not have the force of law, it would appear to be relatively clear cut that the monkey itself could not own the copyright in the photo.

A more complex question is whether Mr Slater could own the copyright in the photograph. Although the answer to this question would have to be decided by the courts, one of the most important factors for a court to consider would be whether Mr Slater made a creative contribution to the photograph. To this effect, Mr Slater has argued that he brought about the necessary conditions for the photograph to be taken. However, it is not clear whether his actions in setting up the lighting arrangements, and allowing the monkey to use the camera, would be seen to be a sufficiently creative contribution.

It remains to be seen whether any further action will be taken by Mr Slater on the matter.