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PETA monkey selfie lawsuit threatens wildlife photography, warns snapper at heart of row

'We've humiliated the bloke – now let's grab his money'

In the inverted morality of the obsessive copyright hater, criminals are folk heroes, and the innocent must be punished.

The latest internet victim-shaming is directed against British wildlife photographer David Slater, who snapped a grinning macaque in the Indonesian jungle. US animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is suing Slater to seize the royalties from the photo.

The litigation has sent a chill through the nature photography community, as many wildlife images and films (including those shot by the BBC's world-famous Natural History Unit) are – like Slater's famous monkey photo – triggered remotely, often by the animals themselves. If composition and intent count for nothing, the BBC could lose some of its most valuable assets.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit [PDF], filed in a Northern Californian District Court on Monday, is "NARUTO, a Crested Macaque, by and through his Next Friends, PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS, INC., and ANTJE ENGELHARDT, Ph.D."

"Slater and Wildlife Personalities have, in this judicial district and elsewhere, repeatedly infringed on Naruto's copyright in the Monkey Selfies by falsely claiming to be the photographs' authors and by selling copies of the images for their profit," claims the filing. Engelhardt is described as "a primatologist and ethologist, who has studied the behavior of the Sulawesi crested macaques for over a decade."

Slater, who has the law on his side but no money, is dismayed by the litigation and the relentless internet campaign against him. (Last year he said the campaign had already cost him £10,000 in lost income.) Ironically, Slater told us that he'd worked with PETA before, to save wild boar in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, England, and PETA knows he supports animal rights. But that counts for little now. PETA tipped off the Associated Press last week that it was suing the photographer, and he only found out through the media.

The pressure group claims "Naruto has the right to own and benefit from the copyright in the Monkey Selfies in the same manner and to the same extent as any other author."

Technically, under UK law, Slater has a very strong claim of ownership on the photo. But activists have sought to muddy the water, weakening creators' rights. Wikipedia, the internet website with a history of campaigning against copyright, has refused to acknowledge that Slater owns the rights to the photo, and Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales appears to back stripping Slater of his ownership.

"At the Wikimania event in London last year, Wales was mocking me," said Slater. "Millions of photos are on Wikimedia without the photographers' informed consent."

Then, coincidentally, the US Copyright Office unexpectedly revisited the subject and included the line that an animal couldn't own copyright.

"They do define authorship in terms of intellect and intent," said Slater. "But the result of that line is that people now think taking a photo is pressing a button, and claim that 'the US Copyright Office agrees with us.'"

Slater said misinformation has been spread by shrill anti-copyright bloggers, including, he said, Mike Masnick of TechDirt, and people he characterised as online bullies. Some have wrongly stated the camera was on the ground, and claimed Slater himself called the photo "a monkey selfie", which the snapper denies.

"The facts and the law don't matter, it seems," he sighed.

Slater told us that many websites had profited from the confusion by selling his image on merchandise. Several stopped when asked. The fallout of the copyright shaming could be much wider than one ruined career. The confusion will chill wildlife photography.

"Many photographers have assistants who press the button, toddlers press buttons," said Slater.

"Photographers have been attaching cameras to animals, the flying geese, trail cameras with pressure pads, with the photographer miles away. That means the animal has pressed the button. Wildlife photographers are now worried.

"Why would wildlife photographers travel across the world, at great risk and great expense, and put cameras up just so Wikipedia can steal the results?"

Slater has a barrister working for him on a pro bono basis. You can find his website here, and read his account on his Facebook page. ®

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