Saturday, 9 August 2014

I'll be a monkeys photo assistant

I thought I would stay away from copyright for a while, but then this cropped up. It concerns the issue of who owns the photograph of a monkey that managed to take a selfie of itself. It is one of those interesting diversions which crops up with copyright law and has occurred when the owner of the camera complained that Wikimedia was claiming that it was not owned by the photographer whose camera it was taken on.

The first reaction was by common sense the photo must be the photographers. However most of the articles and legal opinion seem to indicate that the Wikipedia's interpretation is correct and it is in fact in the public domain.

This has caused a great deal of outrage from some members of the photographic community, but it is just another example of copyright law tying itself in knots. You must have some sympathy with the law makers who clearly never anticipated the situation of a monkey taking a picture of itself, then the picture being put on the internet, but it is just another symptom of the old concept of copyright failing to meet the modern realities of creative production.

The issue also raises other issues. I think most photographers instinctively feel that anything taken on the camera they own the camera is owned by them. This example shows that this is incorrect, and it is the person who takes the shot who has copyright. Of course an  Indonesian macaques cannot claim copyright either (and probably got more sense to try to do so), but this is exactly what Wikimedia says. Because neither party can claim copyright, it automatically falls into public domain.

The question is then, if you are a professional photographer and your assistant takes a photo, who owns it. The answer is, unless there is an explicit legal agreement otherwise, it is the assistants. This is a good reminder of the legal minefields an unwary pro can walk into(Fortunately I only have my kids to help me and I can blackmail them into giving me copyright by withholding pocket money).

Here's another theoretical situation. Say you give your camera to someone to take a picture of you in New York on Sept 11th 2001 and it catches that terrible moment the first plane goes into the world trade center. Who owns the photo? The answer is the stranger who kindly took the picture and therefore you would be liable to be sued if you tried to cash in on it.

A greyer area, is if you setup a remote camera in rural Cornwall and you take a picture of the beast of Bodmin . Surely this is the same situation since the animal triggered the camera, not you? However in this case copyright law may be on your side, since you set-up your camera explicitly to take the photo, unlike the monkey one, where it was a random act.

I am sure the ownership issue will eventually be settled in court at considerable cost (to the photographer, not the monkey). However none of this would be important if the photo had not been picked up by media and shown to have value. The photographer in question, David Slater , has estimated that he has lost £10,000 from the public use of his photo (This is not technically correct, since you cannot lose what you never had. It is more accurate to say that he has failed to gain £10,000)

Semantics aside, what is not generally mentioned is that the photographer in question has already gained much from the public attention on the issue. Most people would never of heard about Mr Slater and his work before this, but now he will always be the Monkey selfie man (whether he wants to or not).

He has had far more than his allocated 15 minutes of fame. Maybe the rewards for this will not be as immediate, but if you needed to value how much this sort of publicity would cost, I am willing to bet it will come to more than 10 grand.

Unfortunately the lesson from this is that it appears the modern way to make a name for yourself in photography is to post a photo, wait a few years, then complain bitterly how the internet is ripping yourself off, then profit.

P.S This is another amusing take on the same issue.

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