Belfast Telegraph

Snapper made a monkey of... but you still have to smile

By Paul Connolly

A photographer sets up an elaborate hide and creates a special area to attract monkeys. He readies his expensive equipment, sits in the jungle for ages and waits.

Along come the monkeys, Indonesian macaques in this case, since you ask. The monkeys inquisitively grab the cord attached to the camera and push the button, taking pictures of themselves.

Most of the photos are nothing special, but one, by a female macaque, is remarkable for its clarity, its composition and the startlingly human expressions of the subject.

It is, in theory and in actuality, a monkey 'selfie'. At some stage the image is released and goes viral on the Internet.

Sounds funny, and in many ways it is. A monkey taking not just a brilliant selfie, but one that takes the world by storm.

But it's not so funny for the photographer, David J Slater from Coleford in England. He is a professional nature photographer with many fine images to his credit and a living to make from his trade.

He made money from the image in the first year it was released, selling it to newspapers, magazines and news websites.

But it was then published by the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which used it to explain the plight of the monkeys in question, the critically endangered crested black macaque.

After that his income from the image collapsed. What was a valuable photograph lost its monetary value as it could be viewed – and even downloaded – for free.

"I made £2,000 (for that picture) in the first year after it was taken. After it went on Wikipedia, all interest in buying it went," Mr Slater told the BBC.

"It's hard to put a figure on it, but I reckon I've lost £10,000 or more in income. It's killing my business."

Wikipedia refused to pay for the image, insisting the photo was taken by the monkey and was therefore 'uncopyrightable'.

Mr Slater says the image did not come about by chance and that he spent three days in Indonesia getting accepted by them. "I became accepted as part of the troop, they touched me and groomed me... so I thought they could take their own photograph," he told the BBC.

"I set the camera up on a tripod, framed (the shot) up and got the exposure right... and all you've got to do is give the monkey the button to press, and lo and behold you got the picture."

It's hard not to feel sympathy for Mr Slater, but I fear in this case the law is not on his side – nor even that of the monkey.

Wikipedia is based in the US – and the US Copyright Office states: "The term 'authorship' implies that, for a work to be copyrightable, it must owe its origin to a human being.

"Materials produced solely by nature, by plants, or by animals are not copyrightable."

I don't think he would get anywhere under UK copyright law, either. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 – which also applies to Northern Ireland – and subsequent amendments insists the 'first owner' of copyright is the author as creator.

At the moment of creation, it would appear, the author of this photo is the monkey.

Mr Slater has called for the matter to be tested in court, and good luck to him as it would be a novel and amusing claim.

There's a serious side to this, of course. Artists, writers, photographers and film makers make their living from their work and need to protect it, particularly from internet free-for-alls.

As he says: "Photography is an expensive profession that's being encroached upon. They're taking our livelihoods away."

They do need protection, but there's no need to change the law to cover so rare an event – even if it is monkey business. @BelTelReadersEd

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