Nearly 100 years ago, the nation was gripped by the Scopes Monkey Trial, which disappointingly did not end in a tense cross-examination of a monkey. If that case about whether science teachers can teach evolution was the defining case of American society in 1925, then the Monkey Selfie Trial of 2018 is our generation’s.
The case of PETA on behalf of Naruto, a monkey who took some selfies using photographer David J. Slater’s camera and Slater later taking credit for the photos in a book, sums up pretty much everything about our creative culture today. Just as early 20th century Americans wondered if embracing the benefits of new science and technology meant giving up their spiritual identity, so too does Naruto (if that is, in fact, the monkey’s legal name) grapple with his own unrewarded vanity and questions about the true ownership of digital intellectual property.
Both are complicated topics that we will debate well into the next century, as we wonder when, oh when, will we see a monkey wearing a judge’s robe and barrister wig preside over a televised small claims trial. While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled Monday, upholding a lower court that, no, Naruto doesn’t own the rights to his selfie photos, we will also still wonder who owns the selfies that we shoot and share online.
But, what isn’t ambiguous? That, as hippy-dippy as PETA can be, nobody–not nobody–out-liberals the 9th Circuit Appeals Court.
The 9th didn’t have to weigh in; PETA and the photographer already settled. Mr. Slater will donate 25 percent of the earnings from his book to charities “that protect the habitat of Naruto and other crested macaques in Indonesia,” as PETA described it.
Instead of taking the obvious “of course the monkey doesn’t have rights” avenue, the court believes PETA, Naruto’s legal “next friend,” did not adequately repair damages to Naruto. The judges question PETA’s settlement, alleging that they abandoned Naruto to fund their own “institutional interests” instead of directly benefiting him.
Unless Naruto gets his pay day, and whatever other candy bars he deserves, this was not ethical treatment, PETA. You just got Ninthed!