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Has California Copyright Law Gone to the Birds? PETA Says Maybe it Should

Has California Copyright Law Gone to the Birds? PETA Says Maybe it Should

Anyone who lives in California long enough will at some point in their lives hear about the activities of certain activist groups who file lawsuits in the names of those who cannot speak for themselves. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently filed a lawsuit requesting that the U.S. District Court in Northern California find that U.S. copyright laws apply to what has now been termed “monkey selfies.” Many people reading about this for the first time may think that PETA filed on behalf of the photographer, and that the copyright issues are fairly simple. They would not be wrong on the first part, but the latter statement is not true as the trick to this case -- and what has made it perfect for news headlines -- is that the photographer was a monkey who took its own photos using a camera left alone on its tripod.

Basics of Copyright Law

Copyright laws are designed to protect authors of published and unpublished works by giving them the exclusive right to use their work and/or control who is authorized to use the original material. According to the Copyright Act, “copyright in a work protected [under this law] vests initially in the author or authors of the work.” The Act also states that an author’s ownership of a copyright cannot be transferred involuntarily without meeting specific requirements of the Act.

Monkey Business

The question that the court will likely need to answer is whether the monkey in the lawsuit meets the definition of author under the Act. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “the author of a work is responsible for its creation.” The paragraph explaining authorship continues by stating that the only exception to the “creator is the author” definition is in circumstances where the creator was hired by another and so the creation is considered a “work made for hire.”

Given this guidance, it is going to be interesting to see how the court rules after hearing the evidence provided by PETA, who claims that the monkey owns the copyright as he “created” the work when he pressed the button to activate the camera’s shutter. Another interpretation of what occurred would be that the photographer who set up the camera “created” the photo when he left the camera set up and ready to take photographs. Perhaps the question is whether the human photographer hired the monkey in a “work made for hire” situation when he left a loaded camera in the proximity of the monkey with the understanding that the monkey would snap the now infamous selfies? 

Complications and Questions

Copyright laws are meant to protect authors and creators of works so that they have the exclusive right to the use and sale of their creative works. This type of legal atmosphere arguably provides artists, writers, and other creative individuals with the comfort of being able to show off their craft without worrying about a copycat benefitting from the artist’s creative endeavors. If you have questions about copyright laws and protections for creators, employers, and employees, call the law office of Garcia & Gurney today. Our lawyers are skilled in copyright laws and can help protect your creative projects from unauthorized use.

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Garcia & Gurney, ALC
7041 Koll Center Parkway, Suite 240
Pleasanton, CA, 94566 USA
925-468-0400