Monkey See, Monkey Do: Yes That Wild Monkey Can Sue You

In what sounds like a punch line for a bad joke, a federal appeals court recently ruled that a monkey had a constitutional right to sue for copyright infringement of “Monkey Selfies” that the monkey allegedly took.  Unfortunately for said monkey, her claim ultimately failed because the Federal Copyright Act “does not expressly authorize animals to file copyright infringement suits.”

Naruto, the monkey in question, is a crested macaque residing on a reserve on an island in Indonesia. In 2011, a wildlife photographer named David Slater left his camera unattended on the reserve, and Naruto allegedly took photographs of herself with the camera which later became known as the “Monkey Selfies.” The wildlife publisher subsequently published the Monkey Selfies in a book and on a website, and it was these acts that led Naruto to sue the photographer and his publisher for copyright infringement.

True Monkey Business

You may be wondering how a monkey found her way into court in the first place. Naruto’s case was brought on her behalf by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”), which claimed it was a “Next Friend” of the monkey. “Next Friend” is a legal device that allows an individual or group that has a “significant relationship” with a potential plaintiff to bring a lawsuit when the plaintiff is unable to litigate on her own due to mental incapacity, lack of access to court, or other similar disability.

Naruto’s case was originally dismissed by a trial court. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to recognize PETA as Naruto’s “Next Friend,” declaring that it “decline[d] to recognize the right of next friends to bring suit on behalf of animals, absent express authorization from Congress.”

Was There a Swing Vote?

On the other hand (or paw?), the appeals court declared that Naruto had independent standing to sue, citing a previous 2004 case where the same court held that the world’s whales, dolphins, and porpoises had constitutional standing to sue the United States Navy for physical injuries allegedly caused by the Navy’s sonar systems.

Sadly for Naruto, despite holding the monkey could sue under the U.S. Constitution, the Ninth Circuit went on to conclude that Naruto’s claim was properly dismissed because the federal law from which her claim arose, the Copyright Act, did not contain language authorizing animals to bring copyright infringement claims. The court concluded that animals can only sue under federal law when Congress includes plain language in the law authorizing animals to file suit.

Bottom Line

As if this story isn’t bizarre enough, it has just been announced that the rights to Slater’s life story have been purchased and that a movie about this case is in the works.  No doubt Naruto is already lawyered up to claim film royalties.