The U.S. Copyright Office released an updated 1,222-page “Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition” in 2014 clarifying its position that it “will register an original work of authorship, provided that the work was created by a human being.” The report goes on to state that “[t]he Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants. Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings, although the Office may register a work where the application or the deposit copy(ies) state that the work was inspired by a divine spirit.” The report provides examples of works that will not be protected by copyright, and the first example is “A photograph taken by a monkey.”
The report was originally released weeks after wildlife and nature photographer David Slater claimed that Wikimedia was infringing his copyrights in the “selfies” taken by macaque monkeys in Indonesia by allowing the pictures to be posted in Wikimedia Commons, a library of public domain photos. Wikimedia refused to remove the images because it believed the monkey was the photographer, and, therefore, the “author” of the photo…and, as non-humans can’t own copyrights, the photo was in the public domain. Slater argued that he staged the shot and set up the selfie intentionally, so it’s irrelevant that the monkey pressed the shutter (likening the monkey to an assistant).
Although Slater is still claiming copyright ownership in the photos and could file a lawsuit against Wikimedia (as UK or European law may allow Slater to claim ownership if he employed “labour, skill and judgment” in connection with the photographs or they were part of his “intellectual creation”), he is currently offering free canvas prints of the monkey selfie and donating money to the Sulawesi Crested Black Macaques Conservation Programme for each print redeemed.