US Copyright Office: We Can’t Register a Monkey Selfie… Or One Taken by a God


In its updated 1,222-page “Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition” released yesterday, the US Copyright Office took the side of Wikimedia in their argument with nature photographer David Slater when the office wrote that they cannot register works by monkeys.

The report, which comes just weeks after Slater seemed to be making plans to take Wikimedia to court, simply specifies the office’s policies regarding federal copyright law, but the fact that the first example of works it will not register is now “A photograph taken by a monkey” sends a pretty clear message to Mr. Slater.

In a video we shared at the beginning of this month (embedded above), Slater argued that he set up the selfie on purpose, in essence staging the shot, and therefore the fact that the monkey pressed the shutter is irrelevant. Because of this, we wouldn’t be surprised if Slater still plans to take Wikimedia to court.

After all, he already knew that copyright law wasn’t on his side in this case. In the video he says that Wikimedia is “guessing” because this has “never been tested.” And while it certainly doesn’t bode well that the US Copyright Office seems to have interpreted the law the same way as Wikimedia, UK law would allow Slater to claim ownership if it was part of his “intellectual creation.”

That, however, has never been tried in court, so the legal system is still Slater’s only recourse if he chooses to pursue this.


Oh, and if you’re curious what other types of works the Copyright Office cannot register, they went well beyond monkey selfies in their list. Other entities that you should ask to keep their stinkin’ paws off your shutter button include: plants, robots, ghosts and ‘divine beings’… although a work ‘inspired by a divine spirit’ may still be registered.

To read the whole shebang for yourself, click here to see the full PDF report.

(via Ars Technica)

  • Alexandra G.

    I am sorry, what was the point of letting the monkey take the shot? I don’t get it…what’s so “fantastic” about that? Have a Shark do it, and then we might have something to talk about! This is stupid at best.

  • Anthony Harden

    The purpose of having the monkey take the shot was the comfort level of the monkey to get the image. Did you even watch the embedded video where he explains in detail the answer to your question?

  • Ricardo Vidallon

    Any blue chip ad agency in the world could only hope to capture a moment like this.

  • Alexandra G.

    I did…and the ONLY thing I agree with is the the fact that nobody seems to understand or respect the copyright law…You can’t have a monkey copyright an image because then you open the door to having a monkey run for presidency in the name is “let’s see what else can we get a monkey to do for us”…what should be taken out of this video is how people’s common sense has gone missing regarding intellectual property…I have written several blog posts about this on my blog…IF HE staged the shot, it’s his shot. Remember cameras have a self timer too, so if the camera took the shot through the self timer would then the camera be the copyright owner? Do you see how ridiculous this sounds? Why do we care about the comfort level of a monkey taking a shot? It’s a monkey, they can cook too if you teach them.

  • jrly

    That seems an odd way of looking at it. The photographer sought to create the circumstances in which the photo would be taken. If the device was a trip wire or some sort of switch to be set off by a certain brightness I would think copyright would attach in those circumstances. I’d be surprised if a court agrees with this opinion.

  • Jordan Butters

    This is a bit too coincidental isn’t it? This story is in the limelight currently and suddenly the first example given in the latest compendium from the copyright office is ‘photographs taken by a monkey’.

  • Jordan Butters

    Exactly. A photograph taken by a motion trigger falls under the same circumstances too.

  • Jason Yuen

    I need more popcorn.

  • Rob Elliott

    If you are on a photowalk and you hand (lend) one of your camera’s to someone with no direction, are the photos them or yours?

    The question in court will be, did the work Mr Slater do to get the monkeys to take the pictures constitute lending the camera to them, or did it fall some other prerogative.

    It will be really interesting to see. I don’t know how it will turn out.. so it is kinda exciting.

  • Sir Stewart Wallace

    Obviously nobody gets the copyright. If I hand my camera to a friend, (s)he takes an image with it, it is not my image.

    Though, there are certain degrees of this. I think it should fall on a case by case situation.

    For example, if I set up my camera on a tripod. Get all of the settings ready and all that is needed is the push of the shutter button, and I ask a friend to push it for me, that’s should be my image. At that point, they’re just acting as a remote shutter. Though, if they start adjusting the settings and changing the scene, they are the ones making the photo at that point.

    The more I think about it, the more complex it gets.

  • Emmanuel Canaan

    This case makes me sad. Regardless of where you stand or what arguments you make, if the courts rule on the side of Wikimedia, the outcome is likely that we will never see images like this again. What photographer is going to go out of their way and spend all the money to setup a shot like this if anyone can freely take it without compensating the photographer?

  • snapshot1

    Technically copyright belongs to the one who took the image regardless if you “give them direction” of how you want the shot to look, unless you agree beforehand otherwise. Now how many people would actually end up in a situation where this matters? Hardly anyone, but I can tell you if all of a sudden someone realized that the person they gave the camera to was a famous photographer and they had proof that the photo on their camera was taken by that person, you can’t tell me they wouldn’t be trying to sell it as an “original photo by X famous photographer”. That’s why copyrights are the way they are.

  • Cinekpol

    Well, so far over 4 millions did.
    Over 4 millions spend their time, money and created a setups to upload various files into a wikimedia commons. And none of them will ever see even a single $ out of.
    Why? Because there are some greater ideals than money in your wallet.

  • Emmanuel Canaan

    Yes, and they are incredibly kind individuals for doing so. My point is that those millions of images aren’t this specific kind of photo that takes thousands of dollars to setup and is taken in remote parts of the world. These kind of images don’t just happen, they take careful planning and determined effort. Maybe someone will get an image like this in the future by accident and post it to Wikimedia, or maybe they’ll just be that generous, but I doubt we will see many do that.

  • OtterMatt

    I’d be pissed off if I went to Borneo or wherever and fixed up a camera like this only to never make a dollar in return off of one of the most viral images taken in years. Hell, I’d probably just ragequit photography after it was all said and done.

  • OtterMatt

    It follows the established law, and I suppose it’s a step up from registering the copyright to the monkey, but I still feel like this fails the common sense test.

  • Sir Stewart Wallace

    Why “ragequit” photography? Save that for Super Ghouls and Ghosts when it tells you that you’ve got to play through the whole damn game, all over again to actually conquer it.

    Personally, I’d get back to work and do something even more impressive.

  • Jordan Butters

    If I put my camera on a tripod, choose the background, dial in the right settings and then hand someone the remote release just to press the button (all as Mr Slater claims he did) – yes, that’s my image.

  • Rob Howard

    So, images taken by ‘robot’ can’t be copyrighted either… does that include, say, Triggertrap?

  • arkhunter

    Moral of the story, never admit you didn’t have something to do with taking the picture. (remote trigger of some sort?) I do wonder how that holds up against triggered shots as you didn’t physically push the button. (laser, light, or sound triggered by using a Triggertrap type device)

  • Keith D

    According to previous quotes from Slater, he hardly set it up. From what he has said in the past, he left his camera on a tripod and turned around for a few moments, and the next thing he knew, the monkeys had the camera and we using. Hardly setup in my opinion.

  • Keith D

    “They were quite mischievous jumping all over my equipment, and it looked like they were already posing for the camera when one hit the button.

    ‘The sound got his attention and he kept pressing it. At first it scared the rest of them away but they soon came back” – Slater

    Doesn’t sound setup to me…

  • Rymzor

    Wikipedia is just being a pretentious douchebag, the pic wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the photographer bringing his gear with him.

  • reservoirdan

    I totally agree. It baffles me that people keep bringing up the nonsense analogy of remote tripwires or the misunderstanding that getting there with gear would have any bearing on copyright. My favorite is “the photo wouldn’t have happened without Slater bringing his camera and meeting the monkeys.”

    This has been a slam dunk for wikimedia from day 1. They know it, their lawyers know it, the US legal system knows it, and I suspect every lawyer Slater has talked with knows it.

    Furthermore, his only hope was to suggest he set up the shot. Sadly for him we know he’s lying because of his statements in 2011 about the monkey taking the camera when Slater turned around and left for a few minutes.

    Since he has zero legal recourse, something obvious from the start of this “debate” his only real chance of getting paid is if someone who wishes to use the photo sides with him “morally” and decides out of their own goodwill to pay him for it. Clearly, they don’t need to pay anyone for the image because it belongs to the public domain.

  • Matt

    Not sure if I would want to get in a copyright fight with god. Just saying…

  • Spidertech1

    actually it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the monkey. The photo was created when the monkey pressed the shutter button, not when the photographer transferred it off the camera and put it “out there”.

  • reservoirdan

    Remote triggers imply a conscious and intentional set up. Not the case here.

  • reservoirdan

    Was there anyone, anywhere who suggested that the monkey should hold the copyright? Certainly not wikimedia. Their stance from the outset was that monkeys can’t hold copyright. Not sure which strawman you’re conjuring but it’s not relevant in this case.

  • reservoirdan

    What you say is true and obvious and has no bearing on copyright.

  • reservoirdan


  • reservoirdan

    Tripwire is not analogous to a monkey taking a camera and shooting a selfie. Not sure why you would think that an intentionally set up frame would be the same. It’s clearly not. There’s a good reason why Slater still doesn’t have a lawyer speaking on his behalf.

  • junyo

    Yeah, I remember the original version of the story being that it was a spontaneous/accidental thing, so I always kind of had the impression that Slater’s memory was conforming the story into something he could monetize once it went viral.

  • pwfenton

    This decision really irks me no end. It’s absurd. The macaque did not take it’s own picture. It does not know how, and has no concept of “a picture”. Because the monkey touched the shutter release, the rights to the picture is not owned by the photographer who set the camera up to take pictures? Ridiculous. If I’ve I set up a camera in my back yard to take pictures of deer when the camera detects movement… and it works… I don’t own the pictures? The deer does? Everyone alive does? This is so wrong, I can’t even imagine the reasoning behind it. If I use an attachment to trigger my camera to take a picture every 5 minutes, I can’t own the rights to the pictures because the gadget took the pictures? Under this ridiculous ruling no other act besides the pressing of the shutter release creates a photograph.

  • reservoirdan


  • jrly

    A selfie is a photograph taken of oneself. A monkey basically unintentionally hit a button having no idea what it was doing. EXACTLY like a tripwire.

    You are attributing human qualities to an animal.

    Do you really think the monkey intended to create a photograph of itself?

  • reservoirdan

    That’s entirely irrelevant and has nothing to do with who own the copyright. Nobody owns the copyright. You’re arguing semantics over my use of “selfie” – call it whatever you want. It won’t change the facts of the case.

  • reservoirdan

    If you set up your camera to take pictures of deer when a motion sensor is tripped you own the photo. How does that have anything to do with this case?

  • OtterMatt

    Maybe because it would serve to make one of my life’s most seminal works financially meaningless and would rob me of most of the credit for the image? Yeah, I’d probably quit.

  • jrly

    A tripwire is a device that an animal accidentally trips. If you are arguing that the monkey created this image, and you are arguing that it is not analogous to a tripwire. You are arguing that the monkey intentionally created the images.

    What we know if that there were hundreds of images that were created, many blurry, that were accidentally created by the monkey playing with the camera. Exactly as the camera owner intended and exactly as it would have happened with a tripwire.


    hmm so shooting lighting with a lightning trigger, crazies would say that GOD triggered it so can i now go steal some nice pictures?

  • OtterMatt

    I simply stated that it was a small step up from that hypothetical scenario. Chillax, bro. I still see it as a failure of the copyright office to reward the photographer, without whom the image would never have existed in any case at all. Whatever your stance on it is, that part matters to me, and I prefer to think that it should matter in this case.

  • reservoirdan

    Nope. Slater has clearly stated that the monkey took the camera without his knowledge while he walked away.


    whats the difference? if i take the photo or teach my dog to press the trigger? i am the one setting up the situation not my dog or a monkey they did not go out and buy the camera and make the photographs. What if i set it to self timer and gave the camera to a monkey whats the difference? or used a trigger?


    how was this not intentional? did he drop a camera in the jungle? and find it with a monkey selfie?

  • reservoirdan

    Copyright law must be consistent or it has no meaning. I don’t see this as a failure of anything at all. It’s an interesting case, but not really very complicated. The arguements put forth on behalf of Slater can be narrowed down to this: Tripwire analogy, he went there with his stuff. That’s pretty much it.

  • David “Lefty” Schlesinger

    Any hypothetical you pose that involves a second “someone” is going to have nothing to do with this situation. The only “someone” present was Slater.

    A monkey can, at best, rise as far as the status of a “chattel”.

  • reservoirdan

    The problem with your position is that it is not incumbent upon anyone to prove that the monkey took the shot intentionally – which is of course an impossibility. It’s incumbent upon Slater to prove that he intentionally set out to have a monkey take his camera by accident on purpose. Good luck.

  • David “Lefty” Schlesinger

    That’s a nifty appeal to awe, but the matter’s not settled until a judge rules on it. Since you think it’s apparently been nailed down, why are you even bothering to discuss it?

  • reservoirdan

    A judge?? First Slater has to get a lawyer to even take his case. This will never go to court.

  • David “Lefty” Schlesinger

    You miss the point. How many of those paid out of their own pockets to lug a big pile of camera equipment to Africa, trekked into the jungle, found the monkeys, got the photos, trekked back out of the jungle, and flew back home, only to learn that those with “greater ideals” feel that they should be deprived of any income for their efforts based on a sketchy “loophole”?