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