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Sad monkey face: No copyright for macaque, judge provisionally rules

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David Slater, from Coleford, Gloucestershire, was taking photos of macaques on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 2011 when the animals began to investigate his equipment. (PHOTO: Caters News Agency)

NEW YORK — Monkeys can do a lot of things. Communicate. Make tools. Fling poo. One thing they can’t do, according to a judge in San Francisco? Claim copyright over selfies. In a case that one legal reform organization skewered as the most ridiculous lawsuit of 2015, U.S. District Judge William Orrick has offered a provisional opinion that Naruto the macaque cannot claim copyright over a selfie he snapped in 2011.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Indonesia resident last year, accusing nature photographer David John Slater and self-publishing company Blurb of copyright infringement.

PETA argued that Naruto took Slater’s unattended camera at a nature reserve and snapped the photo of himself, making him the artiste behind the captivating shot. It wants to manage the photo on Naruto’s behalf and use the proceeds to benefit Naruto and his monkey pals.

Slater argues that his copyright is solid and denies that the camera was unattended. He says he was holding the tripod the whole time.

Either way, Orrick told the parties Wednesday that “while Congress and the President can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans, there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act.”

And the U.S. Copyright Office says it won’t honor copyright claims (PDF) for works by animals, anyway.

The case isn’t formally over. Orrick heard oral arguments on a motion to dismiss the case and said he will file a written order later.

But unless Congress decides to set aside all that bickering over budgets and health care and guns and stuff and unite on behalf of the rights of creative monkeys, PETA’s claim looks to be on thin ice.

That’s Slater’s take, anyway.

“The case was almost dismissed outright, but Orrick, I believe, wanted more fun and for PETA to waste more of it’s donations on expensive attorneys,” he wrote Thursday on his Facebook page.

PETA Chief Counsel Jeff Kerr said he was disappointed by the developments.

“Despite this setback, we are celebrating that legal history was made in our unprecedented argument to a federal court that Naruto, a crested macaque monkey, should be the owner of property (specifically, the copyright to the famous ‘monkey selfie’ photos that he undeniably took), rather than a mere piece of property himself,” Kerr said in a statement.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform ranked the lawsuit the most ridiculous of 2015.

Some of the runners-up: a bank robber who sued over injuries he suffered when fleeing the scene of the crime, a woman who sued her 8-year-old nephew for injuries she suffered after he exuberantly jumped into her arms and a prison inmate who asked for $88 million from the NFL over an officiating call he believes cost the Dallas Cowboys a playoff win.

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