In 2011, Indonesian macaques snatched professional nature photographer David J Slater’s camera and started taking their own pictures. One of them—a selfie by a female macaque—has since gone viral and become a tug of war between Wikipedia and the photographer who claims ownership of the selfie. Slater has asked Wikipedia to take it down. He has said the decision to include his image in its database and making it free to download had resulted in a loss of earnings. The latter has refused to oblige, saying the monkey—not the photographer—owns the copyright because the animal took it. “This file is in the public domain because as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested,” a message on the Wikipedia website read.
While the issue is yet to be tested in a court, a simple treading of the US copyright law makes it clear that the monkey in question will not benefit from the verdict. This might appear unjust to animal right activists who will insist that due to the shoddy treatment of animal creators everywhere, monkey art continues to languish. It is an incontrovertible fact that a society with more monkey selfies is better than a society with none. So long as monkeys are denied copyright, we all lose.
In a better world, we would have treated our non-human artists and inventors with respect. As things stand, the monkey who pushed the camera button to take the selfie may go unrewarded for her work of art. But the controversy over the copyright to her work has ensured that the species to which she belongs—crested black macaque, also known as the Sulawesi crested macaque or the black ape—have become the most famous monkeys on the planet. For a species threatened with extinction that is probably not a bad thing.