The Ninth Circuit dropped the curtain last week on nearly three years of litigation waged by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against wildlife photographer David Slater in the infamous “Monkey Selfie” case by declaring that monkeys do not have standing to sue for copyright infringement.
In 2011, Slater left his camera unattended on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia when a crested macaque named Naruto grabbed the camera and took several photographs of himself. A few years later, Slater published the pictures online and drew the ire of PETA, which filed a complaint in 2015. PETA alleged Slater infringed Naruto’s copyrights in the photos and claimed it could adequately defend Naruto’s rights as the macaque’s “next friend.” The law allows “next friends” to sue on behalf of others if the individual they represent lacks capacity to prosecute his or her own case.
The district court dismissed the action on the grounds that monkeys do not have standing to sue under the Copyright Act. PETA appealed, but after participating in oral argument, entered into a settlement agreement with Slater whereby PETA would withdraw its appeal in exchange for Slater donating a portion of the profits earned from the pictures to charities that protect crested macaques in Indonesia. Nevertheless, Naruto was not named a party to the settlement and the Ninth Circuit did not take kindly to PETA resolving the matter without its “next friend.”
“In the wake of PETA’s proposed dismissal, Naruto is left without an advocate, his supposed ‘friend’ having abandoned Naruto’s substantive claims in what appears to be an effort to prevent the publication of a decision adverse to PETA’s institutional interests,” wrote Judge Carlos Bea who sarcastically added that Naruto should consider suing PETA for breach of fiduciary duty. “Puzzling, while representing to the world that ‘animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way’ PETA seems to employ Naruto as an unwitting pawn in its ideological goals,” Bea argued.
Notwithstanding the settlement agreement, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion. It found Naruto, as the alleged owner of the photographs, technically had Article III standing since he suffered a concrete and particularized economic harm that could be redressed by the court. However, the Ninth Circuit found the Copyright Act only authorizes humans and legal entities to sue for infringement since it does not expressly permit otherwise. The court also reasoned the Act’s language referencing an author’s “children,” “grandchildren,” and “widow/widower” implies humanity as animals cannot marry or produce heirs entitled to property by law.
Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, disagrees. “Naruto should be considered the author and copyright owner, and he shouldn’t be treated differently from any other creator simply because he happens to not be human,” Kerr said in an interview with Time.
PETA has not yet decided whether it will appeal the ruling to the United States Supreme Court. As for Naruto, he could not be reached for comment.