The selfie monkey

Print edition : February 02, 2018

The selfie that the macaque took with David Slater's camera. Photo: Caters News Agency/David J Slater

THE British wildlife photographer David J. Slater was taking pictures of black crested macaques at the Tangkoko Batuangus Dua Saudara Nature Reserve in 2011 when the macaques began to check out his equipment.

One of them, later identified by the name Naruto, reached for his camera fixed on a tripod and appeared to be looking at itself in the lens. It was not long before Naruto took away the camera and began clicking away. Among the pictures he clicked was a selfie.

Little did Slater realise that the selfie would spark a legal tussle and the macaque species endemic to Sulawesi would become the focus of conservation efforts.

The photograph, which went viral, started a copyright debate. Who owns the selfie image, Slater who owned the camera or the macaque who took his own picture? PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), a United States-based organisation, sued Slater on behalf of the macaque.

PETA maintained that Naruto was the creator of the image and so the photographer could not hold the copyright for it. The case was heard in the District Court in San Francisco in June 2016. The court dismissed PETA’s petition and maintained that the U.S. Copyright Act did not extend to animals.

The court said that “monkey see, monkey sue” was not good law in the court. It observed that it was for Congress to decide whether to extend legal protection to animals and push the boundaries of animal rights.

PETA appealed in the Ninth Circuit Court, but the two parties came to an agreement and settled the issue between themselves. It was agreed that Slater would spend a portion of the money he got from the sale of the image for macaque protection programmes.

In an email to this writer on November 17, 2017, Slater said: “We are all happy with the outcome. I and PETA believe that macaques need a huge amount of support and deserve to be recognised. We are both happy that the case raised important and intriguing debate about the rights of animals in general that I championed in my book, Wildlife Personalities [which has the selfie on the cover], which was essentially at the centre of the case.”

Shefique Basheer Ahammed enquired about Naruto during his visit to Sulawesi. But he could not see the star of the forest.

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