Monkeys Can’t Copyright Selfies…Yet

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It’s an interesting case that refuses to die. Described by NPR as “the legal saga of the monkey selfie,” U.S. District Judge William Orrick just issued a provisional opinion that a macaque named Naruto can’t legally copyright some selfies he snapped in a nature reserve in 2011.

The pictures in question do have all the attributes of a selfie.

They were taken with wildlife photographer David Slater’s camera, in a wildlife reservation on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. However, Slater wasn’t the one who “took” the pictures, Naruto did. PETA, who filed the lawsuit on Naruto’s behalf, claimed that the monkey knew what he was doing. The lawsuit argues that Naruto had seen guests to the reserve taking photos, and that his actions included “purposely pushing the shutter release multiple times (and) understanding the cause-and-effect relationship between pressing the shutter release, the noise of the shutter, and the change to his reflection in the camera lens.”

But Slater claims that he has the rights to the pictures, and that he was holding onto the tripod while Naruto took the photos. He used it in a 2014 book of wildlife photography, and has a British copyright license for it. But some media sites, including Wikipedia, have argued that the photos are public domain because no one owns the copyright.

But despite all that confusion, one thing is clear: Orrick wasn’t going to let PETA get away with filing a copyright on behalf of a monkey. Although a formal opinion will be issued by the judge later, he did issue a provisional opinion Wednesday. Orrick stated: “while Congress and the President can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans, there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act.” On that note, the U.S. Copyright Office has actually officially started listing “a photograph taken by a monkey” as something that specifically cannot be copyrighted. 

So, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be seeing an influx of monkey (or for that matter, other animal) copyrights anytime soon. But since monkeys can apparently take selfies, maybe this is a law that Congress will need to consider changing.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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