Louise Westbrooke Photography | The 'Monkey Selfie' and Issues of Copyright.

The 'Monkey Selfie' and Issues of Copyright.

December 16, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Many of you will have seen the 'Monkey Selfie' story on the internet. For those who haven't, here is a brief run down of what happened, as I understand it. A British photographer named David Slater travelled to Indonesia in 2011 and spent three days with the endangered wild macaques, heading off at dawn and trekking through the jungle in order to find the troop. After spending some time with them, the animals began interacting with him and he set up his camera on a bean bag in order to record the interactions. One of the macaques, however, picked up his camera and began pressing the shutter button. Slater states that this gave him the idea to set his camera on a tripod to try and get more images in this way. He programmed his camera to obtain the correct exposure and accurate focussing, framed the shot and continued to interact with the animals, keeping one hand on his tripod, presumably to ensure the animals didn't run off with or damage his camera. Eventually, some of them began playing with his camera as he had hoped, resulting in some fantastic 'selfies'.

The images (or at least one of them) then somehow ended up in Wikimedia's free image catalogue, meaning that anyone could save the images free of charge and reproduce them as they wish. Slater apparently challenged Wikimedia, stating that the images had been used without permission or payment and that he owned the copyright of the images, requesting that they pay him appropriately or remove the images. They apparently refused and a legal battle ensued, eventually concluding that, as the photographer did not press the shutter button, he did not own the copyright and as an animal cannot hold copyright, the images were in fact copyright free. The images have since gone viral and have been reproduced countless times. Slater estimates that he has lost £10,000 of earnings from these images in the two years since this happened. I presume this figure doesn't include the cost of the legal challenge.

Creating a unique image is about much more than pressing a button. David Slater will have no doubt spent many years and thousands of pounds learning to become a proficient photographer, on professional cameras, lenses, accessories, insurance, etc. He states that the trip to Indonesia cost him £2000. He trekked through the jungle for hours to find the animals. He also invested time with them to allow them to become accustomed to his presence (and the presence of his camera). He conceived the shot and set up his own gear in order to achieve what he set out to achieve. He will have spent time post processing the image in order to make it look its best. Without him, the shot would not exist. And now he is making nothing from the no doubt hundreds of thousands of reproductions of the image he essentially created.

A photographer I really admire, Gregory Crewdson, creates elaborately staged images, produced in a way similar to how a film or TV show is produced. He puts a huge amount of effort into location scouting, planning the shot, creating a set or preparing a location, working with a huge production team. But here's the thing: he doesn't press the shutter; a member of his team does. His work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but based on this legal case, he doesn't own the copyright! 

Photography is a difficult and costly business and its a sad state of affairs when people/companies are taking images that someone else has worked hard to produce and using them for their own ends. For me, its not just a financial issue, but an issue of respect and common decency. 

On a more positive note, David Slater states that his original intention was to increase publicity of these endangered animals and perhaps even raise funds to help with their conservation. Although he has lost out financially, he appears to have achieved these aims, as at least one companies using the image(s) claims to be donating a small amount from each sale to a conservation group.

What are your views on this story?

*I have not reproduced the images here, out of respect for the photographer.


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