Copyright is a weird animal. It’s one of the few constitutionally-mandated personal rights and it serves as the basis for the vast majority of the things people do online and in their daily lives (everything from this blog to your tweets and FB status postings to anything you write as a result of your job…. to photos you take while on vacation). Yet it’s so fundamentally misunderstood that it’s almost a joke.
Which is interesting given that the penalties for violating copyright are pretty severe. Forgetting the civil penalties (those that can be levied against you by the actual person you harmed), the criminal penalties can go up to $250,000/copy + 5 years in Club Fed.
One of the nuances of copyright is that in order to have a copyright in something, you have to have created the work covered by copyright (and it has to be a work that can be granted a copyright) … or you have to have acquired the copyright rights from the person who created the work.
Which makes the situation around the photographer who had his camera lifted by a monkey … and who then proceeded to snap a wonderful self-portrait …. so damn interesting, especially to those of us interested in copyrights.
In fact, as soon as I saw this image, I went to make it my Facebook profile photo. Which, of course, I shouldn’t do – I don’t own the image. And it took Facebook reminding me of this fact for me to actually stop from doing it. But the question is: who holds the copyright to the image?
The ownership of the photograph itself is clear: it’s the photographer (and perhaps the wire news service that paid the photographer for the photo). But copyright doesn’t automatically transfer with the ownership of the tangible item – again, copyright is a weird creature and unless you’re willing to dive down the moral rights rabbit hole with me tonight, just accept what I tell you as fact and look it up later.
Copyright, however, requires an “author” … and per US law (17 USC), an author can only be a “natural person” or a “juridicial person” (a corporation, etc). A monkey (or other animal) doesn’t fit into either category and is thus unable to hold copyright. The result is that there now exists a legal quandary. Who (if anyone) holds copyright?
The law is pretty clear at the moment (and, in fact, is being used as yet another example of how copyright law is outdated and needs to be revised for the 21st century – but really, do picture-taking monkeys only exist in the 21st century?). However, the news agency seems to assert that copying is at least uncool if not illegal. Which is going to prompt someone to eventually sue.
This is one to watch, folks. The outcome could get interesting.