A Primatologist Just Took Sides in the Selfie Monkey’s Lawsuit

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Let’s recap what’s happened so far in the case of Naruto, the monkey-slash-photographer-slash-world’s-most-unlikely-plaintiff.

In 2011, Naruto, an adult black macaque living in Indonesia’s Tangkoko Batuangus Nature Reserve, messed around with photographer David Slater’s unattended equipment and snapped what is, objectively, a pretty solid goofy-faced selfie. In 2014, that selfie became a featured image in Slater’s book, Wildlife Personalities. Then Wikipedia posted the photo, claiming Slater didn’t own it because he wasn’t technically its creator. Then, last year, PETA sued on Naruto’s behalf, claiming that the monkey held the rights. This past January, a San Francisco judge ruled against him, arguing that animals aren’t protected under copyright law.

And then a case that most certainly does not need another layer of bizarreness got one anyway, which brings us to now: PETA has appealed the ruling, and, as the Washington Post reports, a primatologist has just chimed in on Naruto’s behalf.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed last week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Agustin Fuentes, a prominent anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame and a specialist in “human and nonhuman primate interaction,” as the brief put it, took the monkey’s side.

“Animals can be the authors of valuable works of art, and there is a market for art created by animals,” Fuentes wrote. “The photographs at issue in this case are works of art authored by Naruto, the macaque … and the best available research strongly supports the conclusion that Naruto easily satisfies the basic requirements for authorship.”

At the heart of the matter is whether Naruto — or, more broadly, any animal — can qualify as the author of a creative work. (The Supreme Court, as a CNN column on the monkey has reported, has declared that in order for a work to be eligible for copyright, it has to include some “creative spark.”) It’s actually a complicated question, given all we’re still learning about animal cognition, and one that this case may not do much to answer. “There’s no way to know,” Fuentes told the Post, whether Naruto has “the concept to recognize [a] picture the way we do.”

Naruto, the paper noted, could not be reached for comment.

A Scientist Just Took Sides in the Selfie Monkey’s Lawsuit