Last week, the US Copyright Office released the third edition of its Copyright Compendium. This edition was long awaited – the second edition was released in 1984. The Copyright Compendium details internal regulations concerning how the Copyright Office determines whether an application can be registered or not. In the US, works are protected by copyright the moment they are fixed in a tangible format, however, registration does provide certain benefits. It is required before a civil lawsuit for infringement is filed, for example.
Almost immediately, a number of news outlets zeroed in on one sentence within the 1,222 pages of the Compendium. “The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants,” says the Compendium. This includes, “A photograph taken by a monkey.” This led to what the internet does best: a viral story about nothing of particular consequence.
The Internet took this sentence as a reference to a certain monkey photograph. To recap: in 2011, a British photographer, David Slater, traveled to Indonesia to photograph black macaques. As he was there, one female macaque grabbed his camera and happened to trigger the camera, taking a series of photos. Upon retrieving the camera, Slater found that several of the photos were quite remarkable and published them, leading to a fair amount of fame.
One of the photos was uploaded to Wikipedia without Slater’s permission. Slater requested removal of the photo, but Wikipedia editors refused, coming to the factual conclusion that the macaque, not Slater, was the sole author of the photograph, thus placing it in the public domain.
The internet exploded with a wealth of discussion about monkey selfies and copyright. Some of it was even worth reading.
Just as things began to calm down, the US Copyright Office announced the third edition of the Copyright Compendium, containing its reference to a photograph taken by a monkey. This led to the most recent burst of news, some of it suggesting that “the government” has “settled” the issue.
Comprehending the Compendium
This is not so for a number of reasons.
First, even if the Copyright Compendium is making a definitive statement about the copyrightability (or not) of the monkey selfie, such a statement is not binding as law. The Compendium itself points this out, saying, “The policies and practices set forth in the Compendium do not in themselves have the force and effect of law and are not binding upon the Register of Copyrights or U.S. Copyright Office staff.” It should also be noted that a decision by the Register of Copyrights to deny a copyright registration is not dispositive of the ultimate question of copyrightability. 1In fact, the Copyright Act expressly allows for a civil infringement suit to be brought in cases where registration is refused. 17 USC § 411(a).
Second, the statement that “The Office will not register works produced by … animals” is not novel nor surprising. But to say that this settles the question of this particular photograph, as many stories in the past week seem to suggest, begs the question that the monkey is the sole author of the photo.
Third, there is no reason why this question would be answered by US law. Copyrightability is most likely “determined by the law of the state with ‘the most significant relationship’ to the property and the parties”, 2Itar-Tass Russian News Agency v. Russian Kurier, Inc., 153 F. 3d 82, 90 (2nd Cir. 1998). The court here was looking at the question of ownership, which is distinct from copyrightability, but I believe the analysis is the same. which would clearly not be the US under the facts here: Slater is British, and the photo was taken in Indonesia.
Authorship and photographs
But let’s pretend US law would apply.
The Copyright Act has little to say about authorship. 17 USC § 102(a) says that “Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression”, and § 201 says, “Copyright in a work protected under this title vests initially in the author or authors of the work”, but these terms – “works of authorship” and “author” are not defined anywhere within the Act.
The Supreme Court, however, has defined “author,” and it has done so, coincidentally, in a decision establishing that photographs can be protected by copyright in the first instance. In Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, the Court said that an “author” is defined as “he to whom anything owes its origin; originator; maker.” 3111 US 53, 58 (1884). Over a century later, the Court would expand on this idea of the author as originator. “The sine qua non of copyright is originality. To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author. Original, as the term is used in copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.” 4Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 US 340, 345 (1991).
So authorship requires two things: absence of copying and a modicum of creativity.
With this in mind, there are at least three possibilities concerning the authorship of this photo: 1) The monkey is the sole author, 2) Slater is the sole author, or 3) the monkey and Slater are joint authors.
We can quickly dismiss the last possibility. Joint authorship requires, in part, that “each of the authors prepared his or her contribution with the knowledge and intention that it would be merged with the contributions of other authors as ‘inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.’” 5H.R.Rep. No. 1476, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 120 (1976). The claim that a monkey could do such a thing is even more extraordinary than a claim that animals have knowledge or intent in the first place.
In the case of the monkey as author, the sole act involved is the pushing of the button that triggered the camera and resulted in the shot. This act is certainly necessary to the creation of the photo, but I am not convinced that it is sufficient to establish the monkey as an author. The monkey possesses no knowledge of the nature of the camera, nor knows that pushing the button would result in the creation of a photograph. While copyright law is silent on what, if any, knowledge or intent is required for authorship, surely there must be some level needed to distinguish what the monkey did here from any other force of nature or deus ex machina that could cause the creation of a photograph. The intuition is that there is something specifically human required under copyright law for authorship.
Slater, on the other hand, did everything but push the button. He chose the location, camera, film, and time of day. He set it all up with the intention to create photographs. He processed and developed the resulting photos. The photos would not exist but for these conscious acts.
Courts have found similar acts sufficient for copyrightability. The Southern District Court of New York said the following in 1968 when it was confronted with alleged copying of the Zapruder Film by Life Magazine:
Any photograph reflects “the personal influence of the author, and no two will be absolutely alike”, to use the words of Judge Learned Hand.
The Zapruder pictures in fact have many elements of creativity. Among other things, Zapruder selected the kind of camera (movies, not snapshots), the kind of film (color), the kind of lens (telephoto), the area in which the pictures were to be taken, the time they were to be taken, and (after testing several sites) the spot on which the camera would be operated. 6293 F. Supp. 130, 143 (SDNY 1968).
So it would seem to me under this definition that Slater would be considered the author of the photographs.
I do think it’s interesting to note that the division between those who think the monkey is the author of the photo and those who think Slater is the author generally tracks the division between copyright skeptics and copyright proponents. On the one hand are those who have devalued creativity to the point where they think all it involves is the push of a button – even a monkey can do it. So, in that case, why do we even need copyright protection?
On the other hand are those who still recognize some value in human authorship, who think that creativity does not just spring forth independent of human effort, who understand that human effort does not emerge spontaneously but responds to motivation, and that one of the most just and dignified forms of motivation comes in the form of property acquired through creative productive labor.
Updated August 28, 2014 to correct photographer’s name
|↑1||In fact, the Copyright Act expressly allows for a civil infringement suit to be brought in cases where registration is refused. 17 USC § 411(a).|
|↑2||Itar-Tass Russian News Agency v. Russian Kurier, Inc., 153 F. 3d 82, 90 (2nd Cir. 1998). The court here was looking at the question of ownership, which is distinct from copyrightability, but I believe the analysis is the same.|
|↑3||111 US 53, 58 (1884).|
|↑4||Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 US 340, 345 (1991).|
|↑5||H.R.Rep. No. 1476, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 120 (1976).|
|↑6||293 F. Supp. 130, 143 (SDNY 1968).|