Monkey selfies can’t be copyrighted, federal office decides

Shown are self-portraits of a crested black macaque, who had picked up photographer David Slater's camera and photographed itself on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Bad news for the British photographer claiming ownership of a self-portrait taken by a curious macaque: The United States has decided monkey selfies can’t be copyrighted.

A public draft of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition — which was released Tuesday and, after final review, is to take effect in mid-December — says the office will register only works that were created by human beings.

“Works produced by nature, animals or plants” or “purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings” don’t count, it says. The first example in that category is “a photograph taken by a monkey.”

On a trip to Indonesia in 2011, wildlife photographer David Slater set up equipment to try to capture images of crested black macaques, a critically endangered species on the island of Sulawesi. The animals are famous for their pinkish rumps and punkish tufts of hair on their heads.


One of the monkeys grabbed a camera and ended up pressing the shutter button over and over. Among the hundreds of shots it took were some remarkable self-portraits that have since gone viral.

Wikimedia, the nonprofit behind Wikipedia, says the pictures taken by the monkey belong to the public domain and has refused to take them down.

Slater has said that he is missing out on thousands of dollars in royalties and that he played a bigger role in the photos’ creation than he’s receiving credit for. “You could look at it like this: The monkey was my assistant,” he told the BBC.

The U.S. Copyright Office hasn’t commented on these specific monkey selfies, so presumably Slater can still make that case.

In case you’re curious, the Copyright Office’s compendium puts photos taken by monkeys in the same category as “a mural painted by an elephant” and “a claim based on driftwood that has been shaped and smoothed by the ocean.”

On the other hand, if the copyright application says the work “was inspired by a divine spirit,” that’s OK.

Times staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this report.

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