It doesn't matter how charming or masterly a monkey may be while taking a selfie: Photographs snapped by animals don't qualify for copyright protection, the U.S. Copyright Office said in a recent update to its regulations.
The ruling clarifies a dispute over a fetching selfie snapped in 2011 by a female crested black macaque in Indonesia. The monkey's toothy grin sparked a battle over the rights to the photo, with British photographer David Slater fighting Wikimedia Commons over whether the image was his property -- the monkey used his camera -- or in the public domain and free to use.
The Copyright Office took the opportunity to clarify what types of works are ineligible for copyright protections, with specific examples. One of those is "a photograph taken by a monkey." Other types of works that can't be protected are "a mural painted by an elephant" or "a song naming the Holy Spirit as the author of the work."
"The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals or plants. Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings," the regulations note.
Slater didn't immediately return a request for comment.
The decision could have a potentially wide-ranging impact, given the Copyright Office's additional clarification that "an original work of authorship" must be "created by a human being." The regulations aren't law, however, but a set of guidelines for the office's rulings and decisions, the National Journal points out.
The new guidelines also raise questions beyond monkey selfies, such as what happens with works created by robots or artificial intelligences, notes Stuart Brotman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Because the rules also state that a copyrightable work must owe its origins to a human being, something that could be attributed to robots or machines built by people, Brotman writes that "wider appropriate boundaries for copyrightable creative expression could be established."
That could also give Slater a leg to stand on in court, allowing him to argue the photo had human origins because he traveled to Indonesia, brought equipment and effectively supplied the monkey with the camera.
That's an argument on Slater's mind. On Friday, he told Amateur Photographer, "I was the human origin of that photograph. Without me, it wouldn't have happened. The one that takes a photograph is the one that sets it up."