Monkey Business

We all have heard the one about the monkey who took a selfie, right? 

The long-running legal dispute is over whether a female macaque who snapped a photo of herself owns the rights to that photo.

The answer is no, according to U.S. District Judge William Orrick in San Francisco. Animals do not have legal standing to bring lawsuits unless expressly provided by statute. Further, he wrote, the Copyright Office states that “to qualify as a work of ‘authorship,’ a work must be created by a human being.” 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argues for legal rights for animals –“living breathing creatures who deserve fundamental rights of their own.” PETA had sued on behalf of the macaque, named Naruto, claiming the monkey deserved copyright control of its picture. 

Photographer David John Slater was taking photos of macaques in Indonesia when he set up a camera the primates could use themselves. That’s when Naruto pressed the button, snapping the selfie. Later on, some media sites posted the photo, contending there was no copyright violation because Slater hadn’t taken the picture. That’s when PETA stepped in, saying the monkey deserved copyright protection.

Judge Orrick dismissed the lawsuit for the reasons stated above. Now, certain anti-lawyer organizations have made a lot of noise by collecting examples of “frivolous” lawsuits, including this one. But what they don’t tell you is that: (1) anyone has the right to file any lawsuit they want, and (2) once filed, virtually all truly meritless suits are eventually dismissed, as was this one.  

Likewise, a lawsuit filed by PETA against SeaWorld related to its treatment of its killer whales was dismissed within months of its filing. But the legal questions surrounding mistreatment of animals isn’t going to go away.  Where the lawsuit may have failed, the court of public opinion also weighed in, particularly in the critically-acclaimed documentary “Blackfish.” The negative publicity led SeaWorld to recently announce they would no longer breed the whales in captivity.  

Indeed, a growing number of Americans believe that animals should have at least some rights.  A recent Gallup poll noted that 62 percent of Americans support some protection for animals, and one-third believe they should have the same rights as people.    

Recognizing this, over 160 law schools in the U.S. and Canada now offer courses in animal rights, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Because if you are going to figure out what rights animals have under the law, you’re going to need lawyers and judges to do it.  


Posted: 4/8/2016 8:15:04 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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