Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman

Letter from Europe: cheeky monkey — Wikipedia claims copyright comes down to the press of a button

By Paul Harris

In my childhood, come summer, the UK Parliament would go into recess, and because that seemed to signal the end of lots of newsworthy items — political scandals, government and opposition taunting each other, etc — the period became known as the ‘Silly Season’. You probably have an equivalent where you live, that time when journalists grasp for something — anything — that might yield column inches and generate clicks.

Some things never change, and once more the Silly Season is upon us. How do I know this? Two words: monkey selfie. By now, you’ve likely heard the tale: British nature photographer David Slater was following and shooting a tribe of crested black macaque monkeys in Indonesia. At one point, one of the monkeys helped herself to his camera and took a few selfies. One of these was a particularly good shot. When Mr Slater saw the photo on the Wikimedia Commons site, which features free-to-use images and video files, he asked Wikimedia to take the image down. Wikimedia refused, and now there’s a fight over who owns the copyright: Mr Slater or the monkey?

Yes, everyone, Wikimedia appears to consider that the monkey has the better right to claim title to copyright and the photos. Or possibly it considers them to belong to a category of copyright called ‘orphan works’, where the true owner of the copyright can’t be established. In either case, they get to publish them, and Mr Slater gets no royalties…

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