Here's Why the 'Monkey Selfie' Case Is Actually a Legal Step Forward for Animal Rights

In the historical march to establish rights for disenfranchised groups and individuals, we've just seen the latest refusal to extend such protections to animals. The Ninth Circuit ruling in Naruto v. Slater, et al., denied to Naruto the copyright to his selfie photographs simply because he is not human, yet no one doubts that he used his creativity, intelligence, inspiration and dexterity to take photos that captured the attention of the world precisely because they demonstrate his wit and spark.

They make people smile because he posed and clicked that shutter over and over again. Although century-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent is clear that the creator (or "author") of a work owns the copyright, the court's opinion is devoid of any analysis of this inconvenient truth. Such species-based discrimination echoes the disgraceful earlier denials of fundamental rights to racial and ethnic minorities, women, children, those with disabilities and the LGBTQ community.

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Self-portrait of a female Celebes crested macaque (Macaca nigra) in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, who had picked up photographer David Slater's camera and photographed herself with it. This is one of the several selfies involved in the dispute. (Wikipedia)

It is incorrect to suggest, as the court did, that copyright ownership applies only to humans because the U.S. Copyright Act references leaving works to offspring. Plenty of humans own copyrights without ever entering into marriages or reproducing. The idea that nonhuman animals can't be authors under the Copyright Act because they can't legally pass property to heirs is also uncomfortably reminiscent of the argument that gay people shouldn't be allowed to marry because the partnership can't reproduce in traditional ways. And why shouldn't Naruto's offspring (if he produces any) be entitled to benefit from his intellectual property, just as the offspring of any other photographer is? Bias is the only dividing line.

Courts around the world are slowly but surely breaking down the species barrier to recognize that not only human animals but also other thinking, feeling, breathing beings are entitled to fundamental legal rights. In Argentina, a chimpanzee was granted habeas corpus. The same thing was done for a bear in Colombia just last year. The German Constitution extends protections to all animals and the life systems that support them. A New Zealand court even accorded a river, a forest and a mountain legal protection in their own names. An Ecuadorian court ordered that a river be restored in its own name.

And so it goes, as our knowledge of the injustices that we inflict on other forms of sentient life increases and we become less frightened of considering the plain truth about our prejudices and our denial of animals' rights. Those prejudices and denials are borne from human ignorance of the complexity, cultures, languages, traditions and other attributes of nonhuman animals and must give way to fundamental legal protections for those animals in their own right—not in relation to how humans can exploit them.

Ignorance and prejudice have too frequently carried the day: The U.S. Supreme Court has denied citizenship to African-Americans, allowed for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II based solely on their ancestry, permitted states to exercise eugenics through compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled, upheld Jim Crow laws that allowed for racial discrimination if the segregated facilities were "separate but equal," and allowed laws criminalizing sodomy between consenting adults to stand. But we evolved to rise above those decisions, and so, too, must our ignorance of animals give way to an enlightened, expansive recognition of the legal rights of our fellow world citizens in the animal kingdom.

While the Ninth Circuit failed to recognize Naruto's legal right to own the copyright to his photographs, PETA nevertheless made a civil inroad by obtaining a settlement in which 25 percent of the gross revenue from the use of the monkey selfie photos by the photographer, David Slater, will be donated to charities specifically benefitting Naruto and his community of critically endangered macaques. Naruto's tribe and others nearby in Indonesia are being killed illegally for bushmeat; protecting their habitat from unrelenting human encroachment is important to him and his family.

That in itself is a step forward, but the court failed him and other nonhuman animals by refusing to recognize their rights as sentient beings and individuals. The rights of nonhuman animals represent the next frontier. We must keep pushing—in the courts and everywhere else possible—to establish for animals the same inalienable right to live free from exploitation and abuse that humans hold so dear.

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