Websites and social media are the ultimate tools for most businesses, giving them the ability to expand their reach and keep returning customers in the loop, all while engaging potential clients for the future. However, the drawback is that these platforms must be constantly updated with new and engaging content. Because of this, there is always a significant potential of breaching copyright law.

A recent lawsuit over a ‘monkey selfie’ is the perfect example of how a simple misunderstanding of copyright law could incur years of trouble.

In 2015, a photographer named David Slater left his camera unattended, and in his absence a monkey named Naruto was somehow able to snap a selfie standing in front of the camera and tapping the shutter button. However, after publicizing these photos, PETA took matters into their own hands, claiming that Naruto was technically the author of these images. They then attempted to seek financial control of all revenue incurred from these photos, saying that it would be used for the benefit of the monkey and his habitat. According to CBS News:

The lawsuit claims that Naruto, who was accustomed to seeing cameras used by tourists and professional photographers, came upon the unattended camera and created the selfies through a series of “purposeful and voluntary actions…unaided by Slater.” 

Naruto’s actions as an author included “purposely pushing the shutter release multiple times (and) understanding the cause-and-effect relationship between pressing the shutter release, the noise of the shutter, and the change to his reflection in the camera lens,” the lawsuit says.

However, as of September 11th of this year, the case ended in a settlement, with both PETA and Slater receiving part of the profits from the image:

A lawsuit over who owns the copyright to selfie photographs snapped by a monkey has ended in a settlement before a federal court could answer the novel legal question.

Lawyers for an animal-rights group said Monday that they would ask a federal appeals court to dismiss the case. They say photographer David Slater, whose camera was used to take the photo, agreed to donate 25 percent of any future revenue to charities dedicated to protecting crested macaques. 

A joint statement posted to PETA’s website Monday read: “PETA and David Slater agree that this case raises important, cutting-edge issues about expanding legal rights for nonhuman animals, a goal that they both support, and they will continue their respective work to achieve this goal.” 

Although a somewhat amusing case, it does teach us a few things about the dangers of copyright law:

  • Always be aware of the potential risk when you use an image. If you are unsure of whether an image is permissible, do a little groundwork or just find a new image all together. In the case above, the photographer obviously thought that the ‘monkey selfies’ belonged to himself. However, since it was taken on a PETA wildlife reserve and since PETA has a history of being very protective of their animals, it should have posed some red flags.
  • If you plan on using an image which belongs to another individual or corporation, always obtain the necessary permissions and then credit the original authors somewhere in the post. In the ‘monkey selfie’ case, it was determined that Slater did have certain rights to the image. However, he will have to pay PETA 25% of the revenue he makes from the photograph. Otherwise, he will be infringing copyright law.
  • Last but not least, remember that even though a work is available to the public, it does not necessarily mean that it is public domain. As we see in the lawsuit above, just because the ‘monkey selfies’ were taken on Slater’s camera and he had access to them, it did not save him from a two-year court battle over the ownership of the photos.

Despite the seriousness of copyright law, it should not be alarming. As long as you understand the basic principles outlined above, you should be in the clear. And if you do make a mistake? It’s simpler than ever to repost or replace an image!