THIS JUST IN: In The Case of The Gorilla Selfie Copyright, Wikipedia, You Are a Thief.
If a gorilla snaps a selfie, who owns the copyright to the photo? According to thieving Wikimedia – the U.S. 501(c)3 parent company behind Wikipedia – the photograph has no ownership. The photographer, on the other hand, begs to differ. In this situation, who is correct?
Gorilla hijacks camera. Snaps selfies.
In 2011, photographer David Slater took a wildlife photography trip to Indonesia. During his three-day journey, a group of gorillas stole his camera for a while and snapped pictures. Some of the shots became famous, and Wikipedia decided to post them, claiming the photos are in the public domain since the gorilla acted as the photographer.
No, Wikimedia…You’re Wrong!
If I were Wikimedia’s lawyer, I’d tell them to get ready to write a fat check to Mr. Slater for copyright infringement.
There is no question that the photos are copyrightable material, which means they are a work of authorship as stated by the law:
- They are original (not copies)
- They are recorded in a fixed medium (on a hard disk)
- Some creativity was involved in their creation
While someone might question whether taking a photo of nature qualifies as a creative contribution, photographs were added to the list of copyrightable works in the USA in 1865 shortly after the medium of photography was invented. Since the gorilla photos are copyrightable, an individual must be credited with the creative work that made them consumable by the public. Therein lies the rub for Wikimedia’s claim that the copyright to the gorilla selfie doesn’t have ownership.
According to copyright law, if a person pushes the shutter button to snap a photograph, that person provided the creative contribution and automatically owns the copyright – not the owner of the camera – and that is Wikimedia’s main argument.
However, there’s a hole in Wikipedia’s justification: A gorilla is part of nature – not a person – and nature cannot be credited with authorship. Therefore, the person who created the conditions for the photos must be credited with authorship. According to that definition, David Slater is the copyright owner.
There’s More at Stake if Wikipedia Wins
If Wikipedia’s bizarre interpretation of copyright law were granted, then much more is at risk than merely these gorilla selfies. If a camera is placed alone in the wild and is set on auto-timer to capture photos randomly – or a motion sensor forces the camera to take pictures when there is movement – then the photographer who constructed the scenario would not own copyright to the resulting images because he/she didn’t press the button.
If a painter uses gravity to drop paint on a canvas, Wikimedia could argue that the painting was a product of natural forces, and has no ownership. If a computer is programed to write random software and the output were to become useful, Wikimedia could say the code could not be copyrighted because it was a product of random acts.
Crediting copyright to authors who create the conditions and manage the technology to bring works of authorship to market allows the public more consumable works. Perhaps Wikimedia loathes the idea of private intellectual property because it is an open source project – but twisting copyright law to their benefit is not an egalitarian move, it’s just plain thievery.