Monkeys, selfies and copyright (and the back of Rod Stewart’s head)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: man meets monkey, monkey steals man’s camera, monkey takes photo of herself, monkey causes international copyright storm that rumbles on for years.


Back in 2011, nature photographer David Slater went to Indonesia to photograph - among other things - the native Crested Black Macaques that live on the island of Celebes. He certainly got some good pictures: one of the mischievous monkeys pinched his camera and seemed to enjoy the sound the shutter made. Several hundred photos later, Slater retrieved his expensive equipment (undamaged but with a pretty full memory card) and found one or two really quite startling and lovely images.

Photo: A crested black macaque - sadly not the contentious selfie - we thought it best not to risk using it here. 
This image is by Henrik Ishihara and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence 
with consent of the copyright owner


The best of them was a selfie of a grinning female, taken in perfect focus. The encounter made the news, the image went viral…and it’s been at the centre of a copyright controversy ever since. You may indeed stop me because you probably have heard this one before. But why does any of this matter?

Well, I think it’s because this story neatly encapsulates the challenges of copyright in the digital age. How do we ensure that writers, photographers, musicians and artists are credited and treated fairly when today’s technology makes it so easy to share their stories, pictures and songs? This isn’t a trifling question: according to a report by Tru Optik (a digital media monitoring company) “over 4 billion movies and TV shows were illegally downloaded worldwide in the first half of 2014”. I wouldn’t even know how to download a TV show illegally – but I’d certainly know how to Tweet you a hilarious photo of a monkey that I found on Google.

How sure are you that something you found on the internet is OK to use in your essay, lecture, Slideshare or Prezi? Even the most cursory Google image search will demonstrate that it’s easy to find images in less than a second. But what you may do with those images should give you pause for thought. In the case of the curious macaque, ask yourself these questions:
  • Who owns the image? The monkey or the photographer? Neither?
  • Who needs to grant permission to re-use the picture?
  • Since the picture was taken accidentally and not part of a deliberately set up shoot, does intent matter?
  • What if the picture had been taken by a motion-sensor trigger set up by Slater? Or the monkey was deliberately rewarded with a banana each time she took a shot?
Wikimedia Commons seem to be still grappling with these questions; Slater is claiming ownership and re-use rights and has apparently successfully had the image removed from there several times, but it's then re-uploaded by editors who believe it's in the public domain.

Thankfully, the copyright minefield - as traversed by students, libraries and researchers - was made slightly less treacherous by recent changes to UK legislation. You may still need to tiptoe warily, but the changes on format make it legal to copy a snippet from a sound recording or film for personal use, and for lecturers to include them in presentations. Libraries can digitally preserve sound and film archives and, of course, you can now legally copy your CDs to iTunes for personal use (which will come as some relief to those of us who have faithfully waited for the law to change before clicking on that ‘Import CD’ button).

So what does all this have to do with Rod Stewart?


Photo: Rod Stewart by MEDIODESCOCIDO. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.
Well, a recent image of the back of his head is raising another cranial conundrum and causing some copyright head-scratching (sorry, couldn’t resist). The New Yorker magazine reports that Rod is being sued to the tune of two and a half million dollars - by a photographer who once took a picture of the singing Scot’s mullet:

In 1981, a professional photographer named Bonnie Schiffman took a picture of the back of Stewart’s head, which was used, eight years later, on the cover of the album “Storyteller.” Now a different picture of Stewart’s head, also from the back, has been used to promote his Las Vegas act and world tour. Schiffman claims that the resemblance between her photograph and the new image is too close - the legal term is “substantial similarity”- and she is suing for copyright infringement. 
(From Louis Menand ‘Crooner in Rights Spat’; The New Yorker online, 20 Oct 2014)

Both controversies remain hotly debated, but no one yet seems to have approached the really pressing question: at what point will an infinite number of monkeys write the works of Shakespeare? And, when (not if) that happens, who will own them and will they be part of the required reading on university English Literature courses?

Further reading:

  • You can see the licensed versions of the Macaque selfies on The Telegraph’s website and on David Slater’s official site: www.djsphotography.co.uk
  • You can find lots of books in the Library that discuss human/primate interaction and self-awareness in monkeys. Here are just a couple:
o   Macachiavellian intelligence : how rhesus macaques and humans have conquered the world Maestripieri, Dario. Chicago : University of Chicago Press 2007
o   Self-awareness in animals and humans : developmental perspectives Parker, Sue Taylor. ; Mitchell, Robert W.; Boccia, Maria. Cambridge ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press 1994

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