Copyright and the Selfie

by Cara Disheroon, attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

l1aYeIn the ever transitioning world of copyright law, issues surrounding the selfie have recently taken center stage. The latest dispute involves a selfie taken by a monkey who, in 2011 in Indonesia, grabbed wildlife photographer David Slater’s camera to snap a wide-smiling image of itself. Wikipedia subsequently placed the image in Wikimedia Commons, the area of Wikipedia that holds open-source material. Slater then requested that the photo be removed as he was the copyright owner and Wiki refused. You can visit Mr. Slater’s webpage for additional examples of his work here.

Wikimedia stated to the Huffington Post in response to the controversy “We didn’t think the monkey owned the copyright – instead, our assessment was that there’s no one who owns the copyright. That means that the image falls into the public domain.”

It appears that the US Copyright Office agrees with Wiki’s analysis. Two weeks after the controversy broke, the agency issued a 1,222 page draft compendium analyzing federal copyright law in which it stated “The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants.” Within Chapter 300, which outlines the “Human Authorship Requirement,” the Office noted that copyright law protects “the fruits of intellectual labor” that are “founded in the creative powers of the mind.” A photograph taken by a monkey was specified in the list of examples NOT protected.

A similar ownership issue surrounding the selfie has also arisen in the context of the Ellen DeGeneres group selfie taken at this year’s Oscars and posted on Twitter. The photo, taken in the audience during the ceremony, quickly became the most tweeted photo of all time and DeGeneres later granted the Associated Press permission to share the photo for editorial purposes to subscribers of AP’s photo service. But legal scholars noted that DeGeneres may not be the actual owner of the copyright.   As Bradley Cooper technically pressed the button, he could arguably be the copyright owner given the courts view historically that pressing the shutter created ownership.

Should Cooper attempt to stake a claim, DeGeneres could have an argument based on Brod v. General Publishing Group, 2002 U.S. App. LEXIS 2544 (9th Cir. Feb. 15, 2002). In Brod, a photographer sued a book author for using his photographs without permission. The court found however, that the book author was a co-owner since his contributions to the process were “sufficiently original and expressive.” The copyrightable expressions in Brod included selection and arranging of subject matter, composition, camera angle and lighting.

As Bradley Cooper is unlikely to assert a copyright claim, the incident currently serves only as an interesting hypothetical. However, as technology advances, issues over authorship in the photography/video context will likely arise again as physical snapping of the shutter is no longer required to produce artistic works.

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