English: Saimiri sciureus. Français : Saimiri ...

As far as we know, this simian has no claim to this image.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s plenty of monkey business around the issue of copyright at the best of times, so when it’s reversed to benefit the business of a monkey, we can be forgiven for still thinking figuratively.

But no, it’s true, the latest debate over copyright material involves a monkey who owns the rights, some say, to his own selfie. Those “some” are Wikipedia editors, in this case, while the photographer involved is left to face one of the more bizarre copyright cases of this or any year.


Monkey Business

The underlying issue here, at least according to Wikipedia, is that British photographer David Slater didn’t physically take the image (not used here out of respect to the owner and his intellectual property) to which he now lays claim.

A group of macaques found his camera unattended, got snap-happy and proceeded to play out a visual version of the “(monkeys + typewriters) x – – hours = Shakespeare” theory. After the dust cleared, a couple of images actually ended up looking pretty sharp.

For this reason Wikipedia’s editors are siding with the simian.  

Never mind that the photo wouldn’t exist had Slater not made the trip. Or lugged his bulky equipment into the Indonesian jungle. And set it up in just the right location and professional manner to capture these up-close images of playful macaques.

No, because it was the monkey that pushed the button, it’s also the monkey who can lay claim to concept, artistic vision, and reap the rewards of the intellectual property rights . Again, claims of monkey business might offer new insights into the entrepreneurial mindset, but even the staunchest of animal rights advocates would have to side with man in this instance.

Another curious aspect of Slater’s case is that the original photo received plenty of coverage on its own merits three years ago, yet only now is Mr Slater’s struggle to assert his rights over the images coming to light. In all things, it seems, copyright protection moves at a glacial pace.


Funny, Until It Comes to Money

Where this amusing incident ceases to be funny is a concern we’re all familiar with by now: lost revenues for the creator.

While a certain amount of leeway is always granted to individuals making viral social media memes on the back of an eye-catching image, Slater is a wildlife photographer by trade and must make a living from his most popular images. By appointing itself judge and jury over the ownership of his popular image, Wikipedia has granted free use of the photo across the Internet and denied. Take this action often enough and the site could easily find itself executioner as well, killing careers by denying

This is a unique case, of course, but the underlying ethical considerations ceased to be funny for the creative community a long time ago. With images more important than ever across the Internet, photo copyright is a vital protection with very real financial implications when it’s not adhered to. For those whose livelihoods depend on the visual media they create there’s no joke in having their rights to that content taken away on a whim.