Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2017 Issue

Can A Monkey Copyright His Original Works?

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From the big smile you would think Naruto already won the case (photo from Wikipedia).

The U. S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco recently heard an interesting case, one which generated more laughs than scholarly legal commentary. It involved a monkey that took a "selfie" picture. The monkey seems to be getting a few laughs out of the picture too, though he probably hasn't delved into the legal ramifications, even if it is his rights that are at stake.

 

Almost a decade ago, a British photographer set up a camera on an Indonesian reserve where a rare breed of monkey (Celebes Crested Macaque) lives. They had shown previous curiosity with cameras. One of them stood in front of the camera and pressed the shutter a few times. He certainly seemed amused, as his "selfie" reveals, but then moved on, likely forgetting the incident soon thereafter.

 

The British photographer, David Slater, sought a copyright for the photographs, but was denied by the Copyright Office. Their decision was that photographs created by non-humans may not be copyrighted. A photograph then appeared in Wikipedia and quickly went viral. Slater was out of luck.

 

However, an organization went to court to overrule the Copyright Office's decision. If it prevails, Slater will still be out of luck. The organization is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA claims the photograph can be copyrighted, only the legitimate copyright holder is Naruto, the name humans gave the monkey, rather than Slater. PETA has kindly agreed to manage the copyright on Naruto's behalf if given the copyright. They would use the proceeds of that copyright to help the endangered macaques.

 

To no great surprise, the lower court denied PETA's claim. And so, PETA has appealed. It argues that nothing in the copyright statute says animals may not hold one. However, the lower court dismissed PETA's claim saying that if the statute was meant to take the extraordinary step of protecting the right of animals to hold copyrights, it would say so. The higher court may now rule on whether animals may or may not hold copyrights, or it could take the easy way out, such as saying PETA does not have the right to represent Naruto.

 

So, what does all of this have to do with books? Remember the Infinite Monkey Theorem? That is the proposition that says if you put monkeys in front of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, eventually one will rewrite a work of Shakespeare. We know this theorem has been around a long time because it uses typewriters, not PCs.

 

The amazing thing is that probability theory tells us this is correct. Random banging on keys of a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will eventually lead one of the monkeys to type out Hamlet, since, as long a shot as the odds are, the odds are still shorter than infinite. It's just a matter of time. One presumes that the monkey who rewrites Hamlet will not be able to get a copyright. However, more likely than typing out Hamlet is that a monkey will create a new work of literature. What then? Will this book be copyrightable? If so, who will own the copyright? Probability theory says that the day is coming, even if it is unlikely we will be here to witness it. The law needs to be prepared for that day!

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> Charles Loupot, <i>Les Cigarettes Mekka,</i> 1919. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> Plinio Codognato, <i>Cicli Fiat,</i> circa 1910. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> L.N. Britton, <i>Warning! Consider the Possible Consequences,</i> c. 1917. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> Leonardo Bistolfi, <i>Première Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs Modernes,</i> 1902. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Paquet Pernot / Biscuits Pernot,</i> 1910. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> Francesco Nonni, <i>Font Meo / Acqua Minerale Naturale,</i> 1924. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> Frederick Winthrop Ramsdell, <i>American Crescent Cycles,</i> 1899. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> <i>Be a Tight Wad! Own Something!</i> designer unknown, 1925. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> Candido Aragonese de Faria, <i>Chamonix–Mont–Blanc,</i> c. 1910. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 5:</b> W.E.J., <i>Irishmen Avenge the Lusitania,</i> c. 1915. $2,000 to $3,000.
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    <b>Trillium, Aug. 7:</b> Maitres Affiches by MUCHA - Papier a cigarettes Job. 202. $5,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Trillium, Aug. 7:</b> De Bry - Map of the West Indies (including Florida, Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas, Parts of Central & South America, Sea Monsters, Ships). $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Trillium, Aug. 7:</b> Gould - Short-billed Toucan (Ramphastos Brevicarinatus). $5,000 to $8,000.
    <center><b>Trillium Antique Prints & Rare Books<br>Fine Art<br>Antique Engravings & Lithographs<br>Works on Paper<br>Accepting bids until August 7</b>
    <b>Trillium, Aug. 7:</b> Redoute, Folio - Pale Iris - Iris flavescens. 375. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Trillium, Aug. 7:</b> Gillray - Light Expelling Darkness or The Sun of the Constitution. $200 to $500.
    <b>Trillium, Aug. 7:</b> Gerard - Wild Hemp or Weed, Cannabis. 708. $150 to $450.
    <b>Trillium, Aug. 7:</b> Shaw & Nodder - Head of The Dodo. 165. $100 to $300.
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Your Own Sylvia:<br>Sylvia Plath’s letters to Ted Hughes and other items,<br>Property of Frieda Hughes<br>9 to 21 July 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, 9 – 21 July:</b> Sylvia Plath. Family photograph album ("The Hughes family Album"), 1957-1962. £30,000 to £50,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 9 – 21 July:</b> Sylvia Plath. Typed letter signed, to Ted Hughes, on "my own private doctrine", with a poem, 5 October 1956. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 9 – 21 July:</b> Sylvia Plath. Pen and ink portrait of Ted Hughes, [1956]. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Your Own Sylvia:<br>Sylvia Plath’s letters to Ted Hughes and other items,<br>Property of Frieda Hughes<br>9 to 21 July 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, 9 – 21 July:</b> Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Joint autograph letter signed, to William and Edith Hughes, March 1960. £8,000 to £12,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 9 – 21 July:</b> Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Photographic portrait by David Bailey, inscribed by Plath, 1961, and another press photo. £800 to £1,200.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 9 – 21 July:</b> Tarot de Marseille. Deck of cards owned by Sylvia Plath. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 9 – 21 July:</b> Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Pair of gold wedding rings. £6,000 to £8,000.

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