Despite my better judgement and the multiple times PETA’s attorneys have sent nasty letters to my employer over things I’ve written here, this story was simply too wretched to ignore. It’s a tragic tale of a lawsuit, a camera and a monkey.
Long story short for those who missed it along the way… a photographer named David Slater was on assignment in Indonesia in 2011 when a macaque (named “Naruto”) stole his camera briefly and accidentally took a “selfie” with it. It was certainly an adorable picture and Slater published it. Then, because there is nothing on the planet having anything to do with animals that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) can’t ruin, the group decided to sue Slater on behalf of the monkey saying that the photographer had violated the animal’s rights or something.
That was the initial, already incredibly stupid part of the story. Now it’s gotten worse. Slater agreed to settle the case and pay up, causing PETA to rejoice over this tremendous victory.
PETA; photographer David Slater; his company, Wildlife Personalities, Ltd.; and self-publishing platform Blurb, Inc., have reached a settlement of the “monkey selfie” litigation. As a part of the arrangement, Slater has agreed to donate 25 percent of any future revenue derived from using or selling the monkey selfies to charities that protect the habitat of Naruto and other crested macaques in Indonesia.
According to a joint statement, “PETA and David Slater agree that this case raises important, cutting-edge issues about expanding legal rights for nonhuman animals, a goal that they both support, and they will continue their respective work to achieve this goal.”
General Counsel for PETA Jeff Kerr told the New York Times that he did not know how much money Slater made on the photos in the past, but also that PETA is glad Naruto will benefit from the images in the future.
The stupid. It hurts us, precious.
First, we should point out that this was not a case of the federal court finding in favor of PETA or the monkey. The parties decided to settle on their own. Actually PETA had already lost this case once in a lower court but it was on appeal. Had this been a ruling handed down by the court we’d be totally over the rainbow and having tea and cookies with Dorthy and Toto.
With that out of the way, a friend who originally alerted me to this story asked a couple of questions and I have a few more to add myself. First of all, the photo was taken in Indonesia. Why was it being heard in U.S. courts to begin with? Second, the photo was taken by the monkey who, from all the coverage I’ve seen, never retained the services of an attorney. What standing did PETA have to bring a suit on Naruto’s behalf?
Next, the picture was taken on Slater’s camera. A monkey doesn’t have any property rights. Why wasn’t it Slater’s picture by default? And finally… ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME? (Sorry. I simply couldn’t avoid that.)
I suppose it’s nice that Mr. Slater will be donating some money to an animal refuge, but it needs to be crystal clear that he did so voluntarily and not as a result of any sort of blackmail attempt by PETA. Had this case gone all the way to judgement the court would never have considered it on the merits. If they had, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and countless other media outlets would have been out of business by next year. There’s no end to the number of video clips and still photos of wild animals which have been used in everything from documentaries to situation comedies. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have ever signed a consent form or received royalties. (Not counting actor animals with owners and trainers who are paid.)
This lawsuit was a joke. PETA never would have won. It means nothing and it changes nothing.
Long time readers know that I’m one of the bigger animal welfare advocates you’ll run into. I spent a fair amount of my life volunteering in animal shelters and that’s where I met the woman who would eventually become my wife. We’ve adopted and provided homes for more than two dozen animals together and still take food and cat blankets to the local shelter every month. And with all that as background, I will state that PETA drives me insane and they give a horrible name to everyone else involved in trying to help animals. Fortunately, this is actually one of their less harmful endeavors and it doesn’t do much more than make them look foolish yet again.
But.. why? There’s so much more good everyone could be doing for not only that macaque but all manner of animals everywhere without wasting years of time, money and court resources arguing over simian copyright laws. I’m going to go fix a couple of extra large martinis now and try not to think about this for a while.