Picture This: Monkey See, Monkey Can't Sue

A federal judge rules that monkeys don't have the standing to file a copyright lawsuit over a selfie.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

If 10,000 monkeys spend 10,000 years at a typewriter, and one of them happens to compose a Shakespearean-quality sonnet, will it be protected by copyright law?

On Wednesday, in a lawsuit that has observers going ape-crazy, pardon the pun, a federal judge stopped short of giving an answer.

That might surprise those who have heard about the legal controversy surrounding a macaque monkey named Naruto, who grabbed David Slater's camera and snapped a selfie. Maybe you've seen the headlines following a court ruling that a monkey can't own a copyright, but here are some thoughts on what the judge really determined.

First, while U.S. District Judge William Orrick may have sneered during a hearing at the PETA-driven lawsuit claiming a monkey was entitled to original authorship, he granted the plaintiff an opportunity to amend the complaint. This probably won't change the outcome, but does at least suggest the judge isn't quite ready to chalk up this legal campaign as hopeless.

Next, before anyone accuses us of monkeying around with a PETA-friendly interpretation, what Orrick was asked to determine on a motion to dismiss and the conclusion he gave in his tentative opinion was different than a monkey's entitlement over a selfie.

The judge said he didn't think the monkeys had standing under the Copyright Act. In other words, whether or not monkeys can assert ownership over photographs (and there's legitimate reasons to doubt they can), they can't use the courts to confirm ownership nor pursue others who use the photos.

The judge wasn't asked to determine standing on other laws, and in different contexts, but we'd also have to believe …

Monkeys can't sue when a filmmaker uses their likenesses in an advertisement without authorization.

Monkeys can't sue if the big Hollywood studios collusively decide they want thin monkeys on set and thus decide to suppress the amount of bananas they can eat.

Monkeys can't sue if Charlton Heston's heirs decide to shoot first, ask questions later.

And so on.

To the 10,000 headline writers toiling away for the 10,000 media outlets covering this, and especially to the ones who got it right, we salute you. You probably don't own a copyright to your masterwork, but that's another story.

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