The Government Weighs In on the Great Monkey-Selfie Controversy of 2014

Smiling with the newfound knowledge his image is in the public domain.

The copyright gods have spoken, and David Slater is out of luck. The British photographer has been in a tiff with the Wikimedia Foundation over the rights to the self-portrait (above) that a wild monkey took after hijacking his camera during an expedition to Indonesia. Slater argued the rights were his. Wikipedia argued the image belongs to the public domain, because only works by humans can be copyrighted.

This week, the U.S. Copyright Office weighed in decisively on the side of Wikimedia, declaring in updated rules that no, you cannot claim the rights to a photo taken by a primate. (Two law professors I spoke with earlier this month said pretty much the same.) “Because copyright law is limited to ‘original intellectual conceptions of the author,’ the Office will refuse to register a claim if it determines that a human being did not create the work,” the rule states. Then it gets into some pretty priceless specifics: 


The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants. Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings, although the Office may register a work where the application or the deposit copy(ies) state that the work was inspired by a divine spirit.
• A photograph taken by a monkey.
• A mural painted by an elephant.
• A claim based on the appearance of actual animal skin.
• A claim based on driftwood that has been shaped and smoothed by
the ocean.
• A claim based on cut marks, defects, and other qualities found in
natural stone.

So the famous monkey selfie belongs to the public. And if you think God has burnt an image of Jesus into your toast or carved the Virgin Mary’s face into your backyard tree, you can’t copyright that either.