Animal selfie enthusiasts rejoice – your pet cannot sue you for copyright infringement for reproducing their pictures online under the Copyright Act of 1976. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”) has now answered the concern that has (obviously) been at the forefront of every legal professional’s mind – whether a selfie-taking monkey can sue humans, corporations, and companies for copyright infringement. The answer – (deep breath) – is no.
The copyright case at issue, Naruto, a crested macaque v. David John Slater, et al., Case No. 15-cv-4324, centered on the allegation that Naruto (a seven-year old Indonesian crested macaque) was the true author of a series of “selfies” allegedly taken by Naruto in 2011 with a camera owned by photographer David Slater and thereafter reproduced by Mr. Slater and certain companies. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”), who brought the lawsuit on Naruto’s behalf, claimed that Mr. Slater and others violated the Copyright Act by falsely claiming to be the author of the “monkey selfies” and reproducing those images for profit. In response, Mr. Slater argued that Naruto lacked constitutional “standing” to sue and that animals cannot sue under the Copyright Act. The district court dismissed the action, agreeing that Naruto could not sue under the Copyright Act, but declining to assess whether Naruto has the constitutional “standing” to sue. PETA appealed but settled the lawsuit with Mr. Slater while the appeal was pending.
Undeterred by the settlement, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal. Sharply criticizing PETA for bringing the lawsuit and then settling it without Naruto’s participation, the Ninth Circuit found that binding circuit precedent forced the court to accept that animals have constitutional standing to assert claims in the federal courts. The Ninth Circuit, however, was not about to throw open the courthouse doors to all animal-plaintiffs. The Ninth Circuit found that under the plain text of the Copyright Act Naruto (and all other nonhumans) could not file copyright infringement lawsuits. In fact, the Ninth Circuit was so adamant about this conclusion that it awarded Mr. Slater his attorneys’ fees incurred in opposing the appeal.
Thus ended the saga of the monkey selfie seen ‘round the world – not with new, ground-breaking animal rights law, but with the strict interpretation of a federal statute, adherence to the doctrine of stare decisis, and a plea that the prior Ninth Circuit law on an animal’s constitutional standing be reexamined.