Disputed Monkey Pics Do Not Belong in the Public Domain

Just let the photographer have his intellectual property.

monkey photo everyone is freaking out about
(Photo via the monkey)

So, imagine you are a photographer and you are taking some cute monkey pics. Suddenly, the monkey takes your camera away and – rather than getting perturbed – you allow the monkey to do his thing, takes some selfies. You finally get your camera back and go home to develop the footage, and it turns out to be really cute! (see above)

mahbod moghadam genius dispatch
Mahbod Moghadam (via Observer art department)

Now imagine that Wikipedia tells you that the photo doesn’t belong to you, because you didn’t click the button, the monkey did. What kind of bullshit is that? So does this mean that photos taken with a “selfie stick” don’t belong to me, but rather, to the public domain? I didn’t push the button, after all…

This is what happened to photographer David Slater’s photos of a monkey in Indonesia. Wikimedia has denied his repeated requests for the photo to be taken down, and Slater is forced to take the matter to court, even though going to court is going to be costly and time-consuming.

A monkey is not a person. It is a primate. Sure, we even have a lot of the same DNA, but a monkey is not allowed to have a Facebook account (or, more to the point, an Instagram). When the monkey is taking the shots, this is because a human being created the situation for the shots to be taken. That human — and not the public domain — ought to own the images.

Also, Wikipedia’s decision discounts the value of curation as a critical element for creating art. The monkey took hundreds of photos – most of them were total shit, just blurry photos of the jungle floor. The photographer chose the cute ones. He is also the one who developed the photos, “picked the filters”, so to speak – elements more important to the artistic value of the end product, in my opinion, than the simple clicking of the shutter.

What I find particularly upsetting is that Wikipedia is not even arguing that the monkey owns the images. A monkey cannot own images, they say, since it is simply a monkey, and so the images belong to the public domain. This is disrespectful to the monkey too. It reminds me of the episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns made his canary the head of the nuclear plant to avoid liability:

simpsons screengrab


Furthermore, think about the perverse incentives Wikipedia’s decision creates. If I were a photographer, after this happened, I would never allow a monkey to play with my camera again. What’s in it for me? The dynamic effect of Wikipedia’s decision, if it holds, is a dramatic decrease in the number of monkey selfies taken globally – a devastating loss to both human culture and monkey culture.

In other words, Wikipedia’s decision is a tragedy for every primate on the planet.

If you want to see the selfies, go to the Wikipedia Macaque page – the photos are referred to as the “disputed Macaque selfies” even on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia editors are aware that they are being shady, they are tryna play games. The average Wikipedia editor is like 15 years old; should these teenage nerds – nerds who are only now beginning to experience the pleasure/shame of masturbation – be allowed to set legal precedents?

This dude probably wants, like, a couple G’s for his pics. Jimmy Wales has billions of dollars.. JIMMY: just hook the homie up! Give him the money, don’t be so aggressive. Let him eat, let him get his royalties.

One problem with the tech industry is that everyone is always trying to be adversarial. Because tech executives are nerds, they haven’t learned the art of just being homies with people, having a drink, chillin and having fun.

Also, tech people have this irrational reverence for the public domain, like increasing the public domain increases the size of God’s brain or something. Putting something in the public domain does not mean that everybody owns it, it means that nobody owns it. Nobody will promote it or take care of it.

Genius’ use of lyrics is transformative/fair use. If Genius wanted to, we could’ve taken the music publishers to court and run amok. But we didn’t do it because we wanted to be homies with the artists and publishers. We want the artists to annotate their own lyrics, follow in the trailblazing footsteps of Nas the DON. We didn’t want to put legal precedent above a general sense of friendliness and good vibes..

If the photographer was getting some money off of this, he would have an incentive to set up an Instagram account for the monkey, and everyone would probably love it. I could see the account growing to millions of followers, and my mom sending me links to it all the time…

As it stands, there is zero chance the photographer is going to set up this Instagram; he certainly won’t be teaching the monkey to use Vine.

Mahbod aka @mahbodmoghadam is a really funny tweeter. He is a co-founder of Genius.

Disputed Monkey Pics Do Not Belong in the Public Domain