Monkey see, monkey sue.

Monkey sues man! How is this a thing?

Of all the court cases in all the world, this is perhaps the oddest, the weirdest, the most bizarre.

An Indonesian macaque monkey is suing a British freelance photographer over the copyright of a “selfie” picture the monkey snapped, using a camera placed by Monmouthshire, UK photographer David Slater. The image, naturally, went viral.



Slater, who like most freelance photographers, struggles to make ends meet, was counting on royalties from the image to pay for at least part of his trip to Indonesia.

Animal-rights activists, fed up with what they see as the constant and relentless exploitation of animals in their natural habitat, filed suit in a California state court, insisting that all financial and monetary gains from the image should go to the ‘person’ who clicked the shutter and thereby took the picture — i.e. the monkey — and not the freelancer, who they say merely provided the means by which the photo was taken.

A lower court ruled that copyright protection cannot be applied to a monkey. The animal-rights group PETA disagreed, and filed an appeal with the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco, Calif.

And there the case stands.

Testimony in the case was read in court this past week, and details were duly reported by mainstream media outlets, including — but not limited to — the Daily Telegraph, BBC World, de Volkskrant, ABC News, USA Today, Sky News Australia, the Guardian and, well, Maxim magazine. 

Slater estimates he has already lost out on tens of thousands of dollars in rights fees for an image that has gone viral, both on the internet, where hardly anyone pays for anything, and in respected, high-profile periodicals that, in theory anyway, pay copyright holders for the use of widely sought-after images.

The whole thing sounds silly — and, in a way, it is — but there’s method behind PETA’s legal madness. 

If the appeal court finds for the monkey, a legal precedent will be set. There may be a time in the not-too-distant future when wildlife conservancies, nature reserves and national parks will be legally entitled to a percentage of the proceeds from wildlife images taken within their boundaries, in the same way most zoos now control what for-profit photos may or may not be taken on their premises.

It’s easy to make light of the case — the image itself is on the wacky side, and so difficult to take seriously — and mainstream media outlets have hada good time watching claimants in the case go, well, bananas.

©Chris Slater/Caters News Agency

©Chris Slater/Caters News Agency

Slater himself, however, feels hurt. As a freelance photographer, he struggles to make ends meet at the best of times. And he has a point when he says — as he did this past week to the BBC — that PETA must have better things on which to spend the money it receives from well-meaning donors than taking on a penniless photographer with a family to support.

Slater is so strapped for cash he couldn’t fly to California to testify in person this past week. (One might reasonably ask how a California court has jurisdiction over a case involving a UK photographer over a photo that was taken in Indonesia, by a resident, if you will, of Indonesia, but that’s a whole other matter.)

©David Slater/Caters News Agency

©David Slater/Caters News Agency

Slater argued in absentia that there was more to taking the image than simply handing a troupe of monkeys a camera and seeing what might come of it.  He insisted that it took time and perseverance over a period of several days to get the selfie in question, along with other photos. If nothing else, it took days, weeks even, to earn the monkeys’ trust. The time he put in was, by itself, enough to earn him the claim of copyright ownership, he argues.

Weirdly — everything about this, um, tale is weird —  PETA needed a name for the purposes of their lawsuit, so they named the macaque ‘Naruto,’ for the purposes of court documents. (The case is officially filed as ‘Naruto v David Slater.’) Naruto is a female name, however; Slater insists the monkey in the selfie is a male. In other words, he says, he isn’t even being sued by the right monkey.

Slater sees himself as a conservationist first, andwildlife photographer second. Interest in the image has already helped highlight the plight of Indonesia’s dwindling rainforests — and the animals that live within — around the world.

©David Slater/Caters News Agency

©David Slater/Caters News Agency

He’s upset because he will be in serious financial trouble if he loses the case, and yet PETA insists any proceeds it will get from the case will go towards protecting monkeys and their natural habitat. BBC News reported that PETA would not say how much money it has spent on the case so far, but did say the group is acting on the macaque’s behalf.

PETA is arguing that, given the circumstances under which the picture was taken, the monkey is the sole copyright holder, “and PETA is proud to be his voice in court.”

PETA’s legal argument rests on the fact that, in the organization’s eyes, it was the monkey, not Slater, who “made the cause-and-effect connection between pressing the shutter and the change to his reflection in the camera lens, resulting in (the) now-famous selfie photographs.”

‘Now-famous’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The case won’t be settled any time soon, by the way. 

The appeal court’s decision isn’t expected for months.

And, yes, this is really happening.