It’s like that Jerry Seinfeld cartoon The Bee Movie. The bizarre cartoon depicts a world where humans figure out that bees can talk. Wouldn’t you know, that coincidentally enough, they speak fluent American English. The bees and humans have a bit of culture clashing, then the bees help this lady with her love life. But, by the end, the bees decide they have been given a raw deal by the human race.
The entire bee community sues humanity for taking all their honey in a ludicrous courtroom scene, that begs the question, “Do non humans that live in America even have legal rights?” It would seem to be a question so outlandish that only children would give it credence. Until now. It’s become a real question that our overcrowded legal system has been forced to take the time to answer.
It started in 2011, when British nature photographer David Slater was photographing the endangered macaques in Indonesia. He decided he wanted to see if the monkeys could operate a camera. he set up a camera on a tripod, and tried to get the monkeys to press the shutter while peering into the lens. Finally, he walked away for several minutes.
When Slater returned, Naruto had taken several pictures, including a rather stunning selfie. Word got around about the photos, and Wikipedia then published them for free. In 2014, Slater asked Wikipedia to take the photos down, but they refused claiming that Slater did not own the copyrights, Naruto did. This led to a public outcry, in which People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) officially sued him in 2015.
“Our argument is simple,” the organization said in a statement. “US copyright law doesn’t prohibit an animal from owning a copyright, and since Naruto took the photo, he owns the copyright, as any human would,” PETA said in a statement. “Naruto has the right to own and benefit from the copyright … in the same manner and to the same extent as any other author,” the lawsuit added.
PETA argued that United States copyright law does not exclude animals. Therefore, nature should own the copyrights to the photos.
“If this lawsuit succeeds, it will be the first time that a non-human animal is declared the owner of property, rather than being declared a piece of property himself of herself,” PETA said. “It will also be the first time that a right is extended to a non-human animal beyond just the mere basic necessities of food, shelter, water and veterinary care.”
Slater, on the other hand, was devastated. The legal fees and stress were ruining him. “This is ruining my business,” he told the Washington Post. “If it was a normal photograph and I had claimed I had taken it, I would potentially be a lot richer than I am.”
In 2016, the case was dismissed by Northern District of California Judge William Orrick who said that animals do not have a standing in court. “If Congress and the president intended to take the extraordinary step of authorizing animals as well as people and legal entities to sue, they could, and should, have said so plainly,” he said.
PETA, however, was not satisfied with the ruling, and proceeded with an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court. The oral arguments for the case were heard Wednesday. Slater, however, did not attend the hearing, and simply sent lawyers. The reason? He’s so broke he couldn’t even afford the flight to the United States. As a matter of fact, he told the The Telegraph that the battle over the pictures has taken the life out of him and his career.
“I am just not motivated to go out and take photos any more. I’ve had outlays of several thousand pounds for lawyers,” he said. “It is losing me income and getting me so depressed. When I think about the whole situation I really don’t think it’s worth it.”
He has considered changing vocation to being a tennis coach, or even a dog walker. “ It would pay peanuts, but at least it would be more than photography,” he said.
Meanwhile, back in the States, the lawyers and PETA representatives argued about the offending photos. His lawyers argued that it was “absurd,” for a monkey to be entitled to copyright. They also said PETA should pay all his legal bills.
Judge Randy Smith mused what would a monkey want with a copyright? “There’s no loss as to reputation,” he said. There’s no even allegation that the copyright could have benefitted somehow Naruto. What financial benefits apply to him? There’s nothing.”
The final task was that the lawyers must prove that the macaques were subject to the “next friend,” principle. This means that in cases where parties cannot speak for themselves, another party can speak on their behalf. If PETA cannot demonstrate that, then the case would be dismissed.
The case was not ruled upon yet, but it would seem the macaque has little chance of a copyright. But, Slater doesn’t regret the incident. “It has taken six years for my original intention to come true which was to highlight the plight of the monkeys and bring it to the world,” he said.“No one had heard of these monkeys six years ago, they were down to the last thousands. Tourists are now visiting and people see there is a longer-term benefit to the community than just shooting a monkey.”
For that, it would seem Naruto would have her justice.