A federal judge recently ruled that when it comes to a copyright of a photo—or any other document—a monkey cannot own the legal rights. Yes, you are reading that correctly. The plaintiff in this case was a monkey.
The Copyright Act of 1976 is the federal law under which copyrights are protected. There are no state copyright laws, as these laws are prohibited under the Act. The law protects “works of authorship” and includes the following:
- All stages of architectural works;
- Audiovisual works and motion pictures, which can include documentaries, interactive multimedia, movies, television shows, television ads and training films.
- Choreographic works;
- Dramatic works such as operas or plays;
- Graphic, pictorial, or sculptural works. The types of works that fall under this category include cartoons and their characters, drawings, graphic art, maps, paintings, photographs, statues, and stuffed animals;
- Literary works, including novels, magazine and newspaper articles and poetry. It also includes business works such as advertisements, brochures, business directories, catalogs, and computer software (including manuals and other documentation); and
- Sound recordings.
A copyright gives the owner of the property the rights to display, distribute, reproduce, and create new works based on the original (i.e. a film sequel). Under the law, the item to be copyrighted must be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This means that the item must exist somewhere in physical form. In other words, you cannot copyright ideas.
The lifetime of the copyright depends on when the work was published. Anything that was published in this country prior to 1923 is not protected under copyright laws and the work falls under public domain. For works published between 1923 to 1977, the copyright is valid for 95 years from the date of publication. For all works published after 1977, the copyright is valid for 70 years.
In the recent federal case, a nature photographer was working in Indonesia when a monkey got ahold of his camera and took a “selfie.” The photograph quickly went viral and several online publications insisted the photograph was part of the public domain. However, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) stepped in and insisted that the copyright of the photo actually belongs to the monkey. They filed the lawsuit on the animal’s behalf.
The photographer, whose camera the monkey used, obtained a British copyright to the photo and he requested the federal court dismiss the lawsuit. The federal judge ruled that a monkey—or any other animal—cannot own a copyright and said the only institution that can change that would be Congress.
Although this case may seem as if it was a frivolous one, copyright infringement can be a serious problem. Contact an experienced DuPage County business law attorney for copyright questions or issues you may have. Call Stock, Carlson, Oldfield & McGrath LLC at 630-665-2500 to schedule your consultation today.