Animal Rights

Yes, a Monkey Should Absolutely Be the Copyright Owner of His Selfie (Video)

Granting Naruto the right to his own selfie is the ethical thing to do.

If you thought the monkey selfie case was over, think again.

Last week, a three-judge panel in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard PETA's argument that Naruto, an 8-year-old male crested black macaque, should be declared the copyright owner of the internationally famous monkey selfie photographs he took using an unattended camera sometime before 2011, in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The story is simple. Naruto picked up the digital camera, looked into its lens, and pushed the shutter release multiple times, resulting in a series of photos. He understood the cause-and-effect relationship between pressing the shutter button, the noise of the shutter, and the change in the reflection he saw in the camera lens.

In these circumstances, the law recognizes that the individual who takes a photo owns its copyright regardless of age, gender, race, or, we assert, species. If a human baby had taken these photos, there would have been no question that he or she owned them. That Naruto is a macaque should make no difference.

Art created by animals has already proved to possess real value. A captive chimpanzee named Congo, whose paintings sold for more than $25,000 at an art auction, was also reported to have had a fan in Pablo Picasso. Scientific studies have even compared paintings by human children with those of apes in an attempt to investigate the origins of human art.

A ruling in Naruto's favor would enable PETA to license the monkey selfie photos so that every cent of the proceeds could go toward preserving Naruto's habitat and that of his community, whose numbers have declined by 90 percent in the last 25 years. PETA does not want a dime of the proceeds for itself.

Life for the crested black macaques on the island of Sulawesi is a continual struggle for survival. Illegal land clearing for coconut plantations and government road construction are destroying their natural habitat. To make matters worse, hunters kill them for their flesh, and when a macaque mother is slaughtered, her offspring are often sold into the illegal pet trade, further threatening the species' survival.

If this case succeeds, it will be the first time a nonhuman animal has been declared the owner of property rather than a piece of property. It will also be the first time that a right beyond the basic entitlements to food, shelter, water, and veterinary care has been extended to a nonhuman animal.

Recently, three rivers were given the same legal status as humans, and corporations and ships have long enjoyed legal personhood. If rivers and businesses have rights, surely animals deserve no less. Granting Naruto the copyright to his own selfies will confirm the stance that PETA has championed for 37 years: Animals deserve recognition of appropriate rights for their own sake, not in accordance with their usefulness to humans.

Granting those rights is simply the ethical thing to do.

Watch a CBS News video about Naruto's court case:

Jeffrey S. Kerr is general counsel for PETA.