By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Intellectual property department, simian division

Today’s Boston Globe has a brief item on a group of Indonesian monkeys who grabbed wildlife photographer David Slater’s camera and started taking pictures of themselves. The print edition includes a wonderful self-portrait. Unfortunately, the online version is text-only. What struck my funnybone, though, was the photo credit: “David J. Slater.” Well, uh, not exactly.

I see that the Guardian carried the same story last Monday, and made the same questionable decision. The full caption reads: “A monkey takes an image of photographer David Slater. Photograph: David J Slater/Caters News Agency.” I guess intellectual-property disputes are cast in a different light when the photographer can’t speak up for himself.

The Globe item cites the Daily Mail, whose very first picture is the self-portrait I refer to above. The Mail shows better sense than the Globe or the Guardian, crediting Caters News Agency but not Slater himself.

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  1. Intellectual Property laws, like most of our laws, are to govern the behavior between the human beings who choose to join together as a community. How far would you be willing to go to grant all the rights and privileges of a person to animals? (and at what level of intelligence would they gain them?) Intellectual Property laws in our country in particular, since they are Constitutionally stated to “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Would granting the state sanctioned limited monopoly of copyright to a monkey promote the creation of more and greater arts?

    I can think of other cases where just because I didn’t physically press the shutter, I would still wish to be credited as the artist. If I put a camera on a balloon, and put some sort of sensor or timer on the shutter, should those photos be considered mine? If I dropped a camera but it somehow took a great picture when it fell, should I be able to claim ownership of it? If I’m setting up for a shot and something hits the shutter? Is that mine? Are any of these cases much different than when Slater’s camera went off in a way he didn’t expect it?

    Sometimes art contains fortuitous accidents.

  2. Although I assume this post was a bit tongue-in-cheek, I will offer a thought even though I’m not an expert in media law by any means.

    Perhaps the issue is one of who owns the medium (or device) that captured the image? Although a monkey physically snapped the button to take the picture, the image was taken on a camera owned, we assume, by David J. Slater. So an argument could be made, perhaps, that he still “owned” the image.

    If so, that would open a whole new conversation regarding copyright and who owns the rights to images when freelance photographers or others use equipment that is supplied (owned) by their employers.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Sam: Totally tongue-in-cheek. And though I plead guilty to using the phrase “intellectual property,” I was really commenting on who took the picture, not who owns the legal rights to it.

  3. Mike Benedict

    Kind of like basketball, where when a kid scores into his own goal, the official scorer credits the bucket to the nearest offensive player.

  4. LFNeilson

    Intellectual property rights should be governed by agreement between the publisher and the photographer. It’s for the rare image that may become priceless that an agreement should be in place before the first shot is fired. And photographers should not be afraid to stand up for their rights, especially when the publisher has gone to lengths to establish that freelancers are independent contractors.

  5. Dan Storms

    Tongue in cheek is one thing. But once the apes master digital photography, can copywriting be far behind? Will monkeys be the next Mad Men (judging from some ads I’ve seen, they may already be)? And from ad agency to PR and lobbying is not that great a stretch. I foresee the campaign for General Zaius as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the only primate who can win the war on terror and get us out of Afghanistan with honor. Then, Planet of the Apes! Oh well, at least we’ll end up eating more fruits and vegetables when our jungle overlords take over.

  6. Mike Benedict

    @Dan Storms: “Rock me, Dr. Zeus.”

  7. Jerry Ackerman

    To expand on Mr. Scott’s thoughts – it’s long been said that the power of the press rests with the one who owns it. The corollary might be, the power of the camera rests with the one who holds it.

  8. Julie Manganis

    I’m just worried that someone at the Tribune Co. will read this and get ideas!

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