Wildlife photographer’s greatest photo destroys his life; animal sues for ‘monkey selfie’ copyright

Imagine, being sued by a monkey.

In 2011, wildlife photographer David Slater came away from the jungles of Indonesia with the picture of a lifetime – a “selfie” of a buck-toothed, grinning crested black macaque, a critically endangered black-faced monkey only found on two northern Indonesian islands.

The aim of the month-long trip was to photograph and draw attention to the plight of endangered animals, but Slater’s discovery of the crested black macaque was a special event.

“There were only a few hundred left and I’d only ever seen a photo of one,” Slater told the Daily Mail. “I was enthralled by the look, their hairdo, the charismatic face. Seeing one was to be the crowning glory of my trip.”

So when the photographer encountered 20 of the rare monkeys playing together in the jungle, the experience was “surreal.” Gradually, Slater moved closer and closer, gaining their trust all the while. Pretty soon, they were “nicking” his food and, eventually, even playing with his camera.

The shutter sound seemed to make them happy, so Slater handed the camera over, which eventually resulted in hundreds of pictures – “taken” by monkeys. Most of them were blurry, of course, but one that wasn’t happened to be the ultimate “selfie” in an era just before the selfie became a “thing,” a perfect picture of one of the monkeys who seemed to be smiling right back at the camera.

It was that picture that became world-famous, to the tune of being published over 50 million times.

The picture should have set David Slater up for life financially, but then again nobody accounted for PETA becoming involved in what was to become one of the most insane publicity stunts in the entire sordid history of the “animal rights” movement.

The question, according to PETA, is whether or not David – or the monkey – owns the copyright to the picture.

Yes, we’re quite serious.

David argues: “Of course it was my copyright! I set the background. I decided where the sun was going to hit the monkey. I selected the lens and I processed the images. The creativity was all mine, and it required a lot of perseverance, sweat and anguish.”

Slater’s problems started when Techdirt, a blog based out of California, and Wikipedia claimed that Slater’s image was “uncopyrightable” because the photographer didn’t actually push the button. So they uploaded the picture, for free, to their sites for everyone to use.

Which has literally cost Slater his livelihood.

When the sites refused to stop publishing the pictures, Slater sued for £18,000. He claimed, naturally, that “There’s a lot more to copyright than who pushes the trigger.”

Since the legal consensus ended up being that neither Slater nor the monkey could assert copyright, it turned out that only lawyers would profit.

Enter PETA, which, out of all the cases they could work on, decided that the monkey should be the owner of its own picture. And of course, PETA should manage the funds.

While a judge did rule against PETA last year, they aren’t giving up and have appealed the decision, returning the case to a court in San Francisco.

The kinds of questions the San Francisco court will answer are whether or not PETA has a “close enough relationship” with the monkey to represent it and whether the monkey has been “harmed” by not being a copyright holder.

In other words, just another ordinary case for a San Francisco court.

Slater, who lives in Wales, can’t even afford to fly to California to argue his case. “I was being sued by a monkey. I’ve had nearly two years to get used to it, but it’s still totally surreal.”

The photographer has spent thousands on lawsuits and hasn’t benefited from what should have been a picture that would have set his family up for life, but it’s cost him more than just financially.

“I suffer depression and can’t sleep,” he told Daily Mail. “But most of all it’s the sense of failure. I can’t provide for my family.”

Sadly, Slater has stopped taking photographs altogether and works as a tennis coach. “The magic’s gone. I get my camera out every now and again to try to recapture the joy, but I don’t seem able to. This was my livelihood. I didn’t want to make lots of money — I just wanted a fair wage for my work, something to pass on to our daughter.”

But through it all, Slater doesn’t regret taking the picture.

“The photo took six years to achieve what I set out to do — to protect these monkeys. It’s been worth it because that photo is the best thing that has happened to those monkeys. Without all the attention, they’d probably be extinct now as a species. ‘The locals used to roast them and eat them. Now they love them and call them ‘selfie monkeys,'” Slater said.

Watch Daily Mail’s coverage below:

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BizPac Review.

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