PETA Monkey Selfie Lawsuit Settled, and We May Never Know if Animals Can Hold Copyrights

One of the great legal mysteries remains unsolved

PETA announced on Monday that it has settled a copyright lawsuit over its unusual claim that a monkey named Naruto owned the copyright to a toothy selfie that went viral.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals agreed to dismiss its copyright lawsuit against wildlife photographer David Slater, which claimed that Naruto — and all animals — can own a copyright  in a photograph or other creative work.

In exchange for the dismissal of the lawsuit, Slater agreed to donate 25 percent of future gross revenue from the so-called Monkey Selfie photographs to organizations that protect Naruto and his fellow Sulawesi crested macaque monkeys in their native Indonesia.

The dispute arose when Naruto took a few selfies of himself looking directly into Slater’s unattended camera with a huge grin in 2011. Slater claimed he owned the copyright in the photo because the monkey used his camera, and because Slater had set up the shot for the monkey to take.

The heart of the case was whether an animal can be an “author” of a work and hold the right to sue — called “standing” — for infringement under the U.S. Copyright Act. PETA sued using the monkey’s name, resulting in the name Naruto v. Slater.

PETA appeared likely to lose its case if it did not settle. During oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in July, the three-judge panel expressed skepticism about PETA’s argument that an animal can be a copyright owner.

“Can you point to a U.S. Supreme Court holding that says “man and monkey are the same?” Judge Carlos T. Bea asked David Schwarz, a lawyer for the PETA.

Bea noted that the law only mentions a “person” having right to sue for copyright infringement.

Andrew J. Dhuey, Slater’s lawyer, blasted PETA’s lawsuit as frivolous.

“Monkey see, monkey sue will not do in federal court,” Dhuey told the judges. “It makes no sense to allow a monkey to sue for copyright infringement.”

The case became so disputed that Wikipedia now has an entry called  “monkey selfie” detailing the saga. And the U.S. Copyright Office amended its online guide on what isn’t copyrightable, and now lists a work by a “monkey” as not copyrightable.

The 9th Circuit previously ruled that whales and other ocean creatures cannot sue for oceanic violations of environmental laws in Cetacean v. Bush. That decision probably doomed Naruto’s case.