New Copyright Compendium bans works produced by “nature, animals, and plants” and implicitly uses monkey selfie as example
In the recently released U.S. Copyright Compendium, which lays out regulations about the registration process for copyrights, one sentence stood out from the rest of the 1200-page document, and is as follows: “The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants, which includes a photograph taken by a monkey.” It stood out because three years ago, David Slater, a British photographer, traveled to Indonesia to photograph monkeys. While there, he had his camera snatched by a monkey and the monkey ended up taking some amazing photographs with his camera. Slater published these photos, and later discovered that one of them was published on Wikipedia without his permission. Slater wanted the photo taken down, and while Wikipedia at first complied, another editor later revisted the decision and reposted the image, because the editor took the position that the photo was taken by the monkey and not Slater, thus making it public domain. A lively debate over whether Slater owned the copyright ensued. Slater maintains that he owns the copyright, noting that “there are many wildlife photographers that regularly employ animals to push the shutter button. Pressure pads, trip wires, beam splitters – all devices attached to a camera that allows an animal to ‘take’ a photograph. In my case it was an attached cable release.”
For an interesting analysis of the Compendium and the monkey selfie see: “Return to the Snapshots of the Apes,” by Terry Hart. Also see: “Wikimedia Says When a Monkey Takes a Selfie, No One Owns It,” by Louise Stewart. For a tongue-in-cheek read on what the monkey had to say see: “A Statement Statement From the Monkey,” by Bill Barol.
It is important to remember that the policy set forth in the U.S. Copyright Compendium is not binding upon the U.S. Copyright Office or the Register of Copyrights. It is only “the administrative manual of the Register of Copyrights concerning Title 17 of the United States Code and Chapter 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and provides instruction to agency staff regarding their statutory duties and expert guidance to copyright applicants, practitioners, scholars, the courts, and members of the general public regarding institutional practices and related principles of law.”
While the Compendium is not law, it certainly does influence law making in the realm of copyrights. Therefore, concerned photographers should comment on the Compendium, through the federal register. According to the Copyright Office the Compendium “will remain in draft form for 120 days [from August 19, 2014] pending final review and implementation, taking effect on or around December 15, 2014.” The public may submit comments to the Copyright Office regarding the Compendium up until that date.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited to clarify that Wikipedia initially complied with the takedown request, and later changed its mind, and to include a quote from David Slater.