Why Monkey Selfies Cannot Be Copyrighted

British photographer David Slater cannot copyright the monkey selfies that he collected while on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi back in 2011.

That is the latest ruling from the US Copyright Office from earlier this week.

Slater’s argument or justification for the copyright concerns the fact that they are selfies of a monkey that involved the use of his camera as well as the monkey itself. Slater calls the monkey “my assistant,” saying that one need not look at the monkey as a part of “nature” involving animals, but, instead, as a different type of person.

Slater went head to head with Wikipedia earlier this month after being denied his request to have the monkey selfies removed from Wikipedia due to an assumed “copyright.” The Copyright Office told Slater in its ruling that the photos were not actually taken by him, however, so no one could hold the copyright on the monkey selfies. “You could look at it like this: The monkey was my assistant. And therefore I was the artist behind the image and I had my assistant press the button,” Slater said in response.

Slater claims that the monkey took the photos using his camera, but again, this does not count in favor of the wildlife photographer. The Copyright Office places monkey selfies in the same category as a piece of artwork created by an elephant, for example.

What makes these monkey selfies off-limits for copyright laws?

There are a few reasons, but let’s deal with just a few of them. First and foremost is the idea that the monkey is not a human being, and does not have a “self” – so neither a monkey nor any other animal can take a “selfie” when the individual is not a human being. The term “monkey selfie,” as such, is really a misnomer.

Next, the monkey, being a distinct animal from humans (if you believe that human are animals; one does not have to adopt this understanding), is not a person with the same intellectual capabilities as human beings. This is the part of common statements that hurt evolutionists, but it is true nonetheless: animals do not share the same intellectual capacity for reason and thought that humans do.

If, as famed zoologist Richard Dawkins has discussed in his work, we take monkeys, put them in a room with a typewriter, and see what “Shakespearean” work they can come up with, are we going to publish it and claim copyright over it? If the leaves outside in your yard are blown by the wind and create an interesting structure, should someone take a picture and claim copyright for an event entirely produced by nature? Why then, would we put monkey selfies in a different category? Are not the photos taken nothing more than random photos – even if they did come out impressive?

David Slater says that he is losing a lot of money behind not being able to claim copyright with the photos – but why should he? If the photos in question are “monkey selfies,” then should not the monkey in question get credit for them? What is its name? And, here is one question that Slater should be asking: Did the monkey realize what it was doing when it pressed the camera shutter button? Or, did the monkey just press a random button and it just “happened” to take an excellent photo?

One can argue over the importance of monkey selfies and whether or not Slater should claim them, but monkey selfies do not show any more attention to thought (even if the photos are quite good) than a baby shows when it snaps a camera button and randomly happens to take a good picture – though he or she does not know what a picture is or how to take one.

David Slater is not trying to make a case for declaring the monkey a human being, though he seems to indicate that one “could” consider the monkey to be his assistant. Unfortunately, this is where Slater’s mindset breaks down: if the monkey is considered to be “his assistant,” then the monkey should receive credit for the photos. The monkey is not a human being, even if a movement along these lines is alive and well. No, Slater simply wants credit for these monkey selfies in order to add to his wealth. If he cares so much about giving credit for the photos where it is due, why not give credit to “his assistant” monkey instead of himself?