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Ninth Circuit Denies Copyright Protection to Monkeys

Posted in IP Law Blog Lawyers In The News

Does anyone think that a monkey has standing to bring a copyright infringement lawsuit? In Naruto v. Slater, 888 F.3d 418 (9th Cir. 2018), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said no, but not without carefully considering the issue.

Animals have many legal rights based on federal and state laws. Most of those rights are enforceable by humans or legal entities suing under the statutes on behalf of the animals. However, should animals have the right to sue under their own names in court?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has addressed this question in The Cetacean Community v. George W. Bush and Donald H. Rumsfeld, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004). In that case, the court had to decide whether cetaceans (whales, porpoises, and dolphins) had standing to sue in their own names under several federal statues, including the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The world’s cetaceans, identified as The Cetacean Community, represented by an attorney in Hawaii, sued the United States Government to stop the Navy’s use of a type of sonar that causes injury to cetaceans. This sonar emits low frequency pings that are heard underwater over hundreds of miles.  The pings cause the cetaceans tissue damage and hearing loss, and disrupt their feeding and mating behavior by masking the sounds of other cetaceans and the environment. The damage caused by this type of sonar was undisputed. The use of the sonar during peacetime had been successfully challenged in a separate case filed by the Natural Resource Defense Council. In this case, the cetaceans sued to cause the President and the Secretary of Defense to conduct a regulatory review and to prepare an environmental impact report on the use of this sonar during threat situations and wartime.

The district court for Hawaii granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the cetaceans did not have standing under the federal statutes to bring suit.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that standing to sue under federal statues requires both Article III standing and specific standing under the statute. Article III standing exists if there is a “case or controversy,” meaning that the plaintiff must have suffered an injury traceable to the defendant for which a court can provide a remedy.

According to the court, nothing in Article III prohibits animals from having a “case or controversy.” Cetacean Community, 386 F.3d 1175. Congress can grant animals the right to sue in their own names by statute, just as Congress has enacted statutes that provide for suits in the names of entities such as corporations or trusts, cities, ships, and incompetent persons such as infants or mentally incapacitated individuals. Id. at 1176.

The court then analyzed whether The Environmental Protection Act, The Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the other statutes under which the cetaceans sued provided standing to the cetaceans. The court held that these statutes did not provide standing to any animals, but rather provided standing to persons or entities to sue to protect the animals. Id. at 1179.

In Naruto v. Slater, supra, 888 F.3d 418, the Ninth Circuit was faced with a copyright infringement claim brought by an animal. The animal was a Crested Macaque, a type of monkey, named Naruto. Naruto lived in a wildlife reserve in Indonesia. In 2011, Naruto found a camera that had been left in the reserve by a photographer, defendant David Slater. Naruto took photos of himself. In 2014, presumably after finding the camera with Naruto’s selfies, Slater and the other defendants published a book containing the selfies. The defendants listed themselves as the copyright owner of the selfies, although they admitted that Naruto had taken the pictures.

In 2005, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and a scientist who had studied Naruto sued the defendants for copyright infringement, as “Next Friends” on behalf of Naruto. The defendants moved to dismiss. The district court for the Northern District of California granted the motion on the grounds that the Copyright Act did not provide statutory standing to animals.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The court held that it was bound by the holding of Cetacean Community, supra, that animals could show Article III standing. Naruto, supra, 888 F.3d at 421. The court found that PETA was not a proper Next Friend to sue on behalf of Naruto, but held that this was not determinative because a Next Friend was not necessary to establish Article III standing. The court held that because the “case or controversy” requirement was met, Naruto had Article III standing. Id. at 424. However, the court held that the Copyright Act did not provide statutory standing to animals other than humans.

So, at least for now, animals who take pictures don’t own the copyrights to those pictures. You can leave your camera somewhere and claim ownership of any photos taken by an animal without the risk of liability for copyright infringement! In the future, however, it’s possible that the animals just might win.