In a landmark decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit awarded partial copyright and royalty rights to a famous photographer whose selfie set the world on fire when it was discovered among freelance photographer David J. Slater’s pictures on his camera roll from a 2011 trip to Indonesia’s Sulawesi nature reserve.
The photographer, who became famous overnight, was a six-year-old resident of Indonesia named Naruto whose “bucktooth smile and wide amber eyes” made him an internet sensation.
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After capturing one of the most iconic selfies in the world, Naruto had to fight for the rights to his photograph, even if he used another photographer’s equipment.
In the United States, copyright law grants ownership to the person who capture the image, not to the owner of the equipment used, an important distinction when one considers that Naruto surreptitiously snapped this picture of himself.
The image’s discovery and ensuing fame could be attributed to David J. Slater’s acumen in recognizing the photo’s genius, but this is only speculation.
Afterall, who is to say that Naruto the monkey is not some kind of guerrilla artist and this was all intentional?
Well, the photographer has a bit to say about that: “It wasn’t serendipitous monkey behavior…It required a lot of knowledge on my behalf, a lot of perseverance, sweat and anguish, and all that stuff,” David J. Slater told The Guardian in “Monkey selfie photographer says he's broke: ‘I'm thinking of dog walking.”
To get the shot, Slater placed the camera on a tripod among some macaques. The group’s natural curiosity led them to begin snapping pictures of themselves.
Naruto the Indonesian endangered crested macaque lost the first round in US court against David J. Slater, who published Naruto’s selfie among others without his permission in Slater’s book “Wildlife Personalities.”
While initially losing his court challenge, with Judge William H. Orrick of the United States District Court in San Francisco ruling that animals were not included in the copyright law, Naruto was not going to give up the fight, and neither were his new friends.
The presiding judge wrote in his decision, “While Congress and the president can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans…there is no indication that they did so in the copyright act.”
Luckily for Naruto and the Sulawesi wildlife preserve, the US-based organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is known for its persistence, and their persistence paid off for the endangered species.
Naruto won partial copyright and a subsequent 25% royalty in a settlement with the photographer, who lives in the United Kingdom. Slater agreed to donate the money to the Tangkoko Reserve, home to Naruto and his friends. Upon completion of the settlement agreement, both Slater’s counsel and PETA’s asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to drop the lawsuit and “vacate a lower court’s decision that the monkey could not own the image’s copyright” as reported in the New York Times.
The two groups released a joint statement that read: “PETA and David Slater agree that this case raises important, cutting-edge issues about expanding legal rights for nonhuman animals, a goal that they both support, and they will continue their respective work to achieve this goal.”
Jeff Kerr, working as general counsel for PETA said “The dire need of Naruto is what fully underpins why we pursued this lawsuit to begin with…We wanted every bit of all of the proceeds to benefit Naruto.”
The Indonesian nature reserve on Sulawesi is one of the few habitats for the endangered species. Crested macaques are “black monkeys with sloping faces and short tails.”
As of reporting, Naruto is still a famous resident of Tangkoko and enjoys daily visitors, among whom he is very popular.