One day in 2011, Naruto picked up an unattended camera, looked at the lens, flashed a grin and pressed the shutter button. The photographs went viral, and catapulted Naruto to a place of unique distinction: The first crested macaque to take a selfie. We do not know if Naruto cares for this laurel. But British photographer David Slater certainly does. He claimed that the photographs were stage-managed and it had taken him three-and-a-half days of “blood, sweat and tears” in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to induce the monkey into taking the selfie. Naruto had no claims to authorship, Slater contended, spawning a discourse on the personhood of animals, that intensified when PETA claimed to take up cudgels on behalf of the macaque. Slater should share the copyright with Naruto, the animal rights organisation claimed, precipitating a three-year wrangle that ended on Monday. Naruto did not have copyright over his photograph, a San Francisco court has ruled.
On the face of it, PETA’s contention that Slater share the commercial gains he has made from Naruto’s photographs is only fair. In fact in October, it reached a settlement with the photographer, requiring Slater to commit 25 per cent of his earnings from Naruto’s photographs to “charities that protect the habitat of crested macaques in Indonesia”. But questions remained. Who had given PETA the right to speak for the animal? Was Naruto incidental to an ideological tussle between an organisation that claims to speak for animals and a photographer asking for sole ownership over a piece of work of which he is, at best, co-author. If benefits from the sale of Naruto’s photographs were to be shared for the good of his fellow macaques in Sulawesi, what say did the animals have over the utilisation of the funds.
In the six months since reaching the settlement with Slater, PETA spoilt its own case by not doing anything that benefited Naruto. The animal rights organisation, as the San Francisco court ruled, “used the settlement to further its institutional interests”. Maybe, Naruto should sue PETA, the court suggested. But is the macaque really interested?