The Monkey Selfie "Settlement" Doesn't Actually Settle Much

The case isn't quite over, and the real controversy is just beginning.
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty

With apologies to humankind, those regurgitating a press release about a supposed settlement to end the "monkey selfie" controversy may have more in common with the monkeys than they would like to believe.

As most people know by now, the dispute erupted after a macaque monkey named Naruto allegedly grabbed David Slater's camera and snapped a selfie. After the wildlife photographer then included the viral photo in a book of images called Wildlife Personalities, PETA sued as a friend of the monkey with claims that Naruto owned the copyright. The lawsuit failed at the district court — mainly because U.S. District Judge William Orrick decided that monkeys don't have standing to enforce claims under the Copyright Act. That led to an appeal, where during oral arguments, 9th Circuit judges appeared unlikely to overturn the lower court's decision.

With that in context comes PETA's new statement how the case has been "settled."

"Finally over," reacts Fortune. "Little did the endangered crested macaque know that he may have been providing for his future," writes The New York Times.

Hold on.

First of all, the case isn't quite over. The parties could have simply moved the court to dismiss the appeal, but they also want the 9th Circuit to vacate the district court judgment. Perhaps the appellate judges will agree that everything is now moot, but perhaps not. There shouldn't be a rush to conclusion here. Not when the actual motion states such procedural what-what as, "PETA contends it would be just and proper to not bind Plaintiff Naruto by the judgment of the district court in light of the dispute concerning PETA’s status to file the complaint which resulted in that judgment."

More importantly, what actually is resolved by the deal made?

Yes, the parties have agreed to end this case, and true, Slater has agreed to donate 25 percent of future gross revenue from the monkey selfie photos, but what about that future revenue? Notably, the press statement stops short of claiming that Slater — or Naruto — owns the copyright to the photos. Maybe because neither can legitimately enforce ownership.

So who will be licensing the photos? And what happens when others use the photos without permission?

These are actually big questions. The "monkey selfie" case earned a lot of monkey laughs from observers, but the lawyer representing PETA was correct in one respect: This case wasn't trivial. Not with the prospect of content created by artificial intelligence looming. Ownership of works created independent of human hands is very much a legal topic that will be fought over in future cases. Maybe even another involving Naruto.

If not Naruto, let's hope the robot has a good publicist. We wouldn't want any writers slipping on appeal.

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