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No monkeying around with copyright laws

On Behalf of | Sep 26, 2017 | Copyright Law

New York is no stranger to famous people. Photos of these famous people can be worth a lot of money to the photographers who take them, but new technology and trends in photography have sometimes made it difficult to determine who might actually own the photo. Since the inception of the front-facing “selfie” camera on smartphones, people have been able to take self-portraits easier than ever before.

Selfies have become so popular, in fact, that even monkeys are catching on to the trend. In 2011, a wildlife photographer was attempting to capture images of a macaque in Indonesia. The photographer set his camera down, and then the monkey picked it up and took a picture of himself. The image has since gone viral and was the subject of a copyright lawsuit to determine ownership.

Man vs. nature

Traditionally, copyright law says the person who owns the rights to a photo is the person who snapped the shutter. At the center of the court’s question in the lawsuit: Can a monkey own a selfie even if it is not a person?

The court ruled that since a monkey is not a person, it cannot own a copyright. So, the photographer who owns the camera owns the photo, but he did agree to donate a portion of his profits from the photo to protect the monkey’s habitat.

Images go viral

The definition of going viral has changed since the monkey’s selfie in 2011, but the principles of copyright law remain the same: to protect the work of photographers, artists and other multimedia creators. However, we now live in a world filled with likes, shares and comments, meaning that a person’s intended work could be used in ways they had never intended. Two years ago, the artist behind the viral meme Pepe the Frog elected to “kill” the image because it was associated with political extremism.

These cases of the monkey selfie and Pepe the Frog illustrate ways in which technology is changing how photographers and artists protect their work and reputation. As technology continues to change how we live our lives, it will continue to impact how artists and the public treat creative work. In that light, existing copyright laws and intellectual property attorneys will continually be tasked with determining right and wrong.