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News & Insight

Wikimedia Distributes Photographer’s Most Famous Shot For Free Because ‘Monkey Owns It’

By Kishore Sawh on August 6th 2014


Wikimedia, the parent company of your favorite source of hard facts and unquestionable truths, Wikipedia, is refusing a photographer’s request to remove a photo from its ‘Commons’ portion of the site because they claim, he didn’t take it – a monkey did.

British nature photographer David Slater photographed the black Macaque monkeys while in Indonesia in 2011. Naturally curious, and seemingly unafraid, the animals seemed to have a fascination less with David, and more with his Canon 5D. One particularly brave macaque took the camera, and the story goes, was attracted to the sound of the shutter when it was accidentally pressed, and kept pressing it. The result was hundreds of monkey taken photos including a few rather brilliant selfies, and even one of David.

[REWIND: Basic Legal Knowledge That Every Photographer Should Know]


While the story gained a lot of worldwide media attention, Slater has now found himself entangled in a legal dispute with Wikimedia. The non-profit organization feels that the monkey owned copyrights to the image since the monkey pressed the shutter button, and therefore Slater’s argument has no ground to stand on. They currently still have the image uploaded to their commons, essentially distributing his most famous photofor free.

There seems to be some ambiguity surrounding what amount of involvement a photographer must have in order to claim rights to the image, and Slater is arguing hard that his involvement was enough. In a post with The Telegraph, he is quoted,

Some of their editors think it should be put back up. I’ve told them it’s not public domain, they’ve got no right to say that it’s public domain. A monkey pressed the button, but I did all the setting up.

That trip cost me about £2,000 for that monkey shot. Not to mention the £5,000 of equipment I carried, the insurance, the computer stuff I used to process the images. Photography is an expensive profession that’s being encroached upon. They’re taking our livelihoods away.

For every 10,000 images I take, one makes money that keeps me going. And that was one of those images. It was like a year of work, really


Now Slater will be facing, not only the loss of licensing fees for his image, but near $17,000 USD in legal fees taking his case to court. Some are arguing that the legal case is bringing him more publicity than the photos ever would. I think that’s sort of besides the point, and a bit crass to even say. But we see this sort of thing all the time, and I’ve often wondered with Wikicommons, just how ‘common’ the photos they have are.

Source: The Telegraph, Wikimedia, Petapixel

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Thomas Fick

    What implications do you think this will have on a wedding photographers photobooth? Does the guest with the trigger in his/her hand own the image? Does the photographer because it’s his/her equipment? Or the photographer because he had contract with the bride even though neither party pressed the trigger?

    I would guess that he likely had permission from the local authority to be there to take photos which would be similar to the third option… if the monkey had the same rights as a human.

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  2. Phil Bautista

    I’m not siding with Wikimedia here but they do make a pretty good argument. They say that the photographer didn’t take the photo, the monkey did. Since the monkey doesn’t have a legal personality, it can’t own the photo. Since it took the photo but can’t own it, then it becomes public domain and anyone can use it. They claim that taking the trip and bringing the equipment isn’t enough to constitute “taking the picture.”

    Personally, I consider this akin to those photos that are triggered remotely through IR or other similar triggers. Just because the photographer didn’t do the physical act of pressing the trigger doesn’t mean he doesn’t own the photo. It’s enough that he set up the situation that created the opportunity to make the image which should be the defining point. By making the camera available to the monkey and giving it the opportunity to take a selfie, this should be enough to take the image away from public domain and give the camera owner preferential rights over all others with regards to the image.

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  3. Mark Hewitson

    I always thought that it was the person who did all the setting up, not the person (or being) that pressed the shutter who owned the copyright.
    If you are a pro and are using an assistant and you as the pro set everything up, direct the model and sort the lighting etc but the assistant presses the button, it’s not the assistant who owns the copyright.

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  4. Shawn Campbell

    I’m probably going to get hated for this, but, I tend to get pretty frustrated with the patent and copyright protections being somewhat over-protective. In this case, I think I side with Wikimedia.

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  5. John Cavan

    I’m mystified as to why so many people think that the easiest part of making a photo, the shutter press, is the one that should automatically assign the most rights. I like Wikipedia, but I hope they get their collective butts handed to them over this one, they need to smarten up and respect others.

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  6. Rafael Steffen

    There is a lot of preparation involved in getting any great shot in photography. All of them are working to get one amazing show not counting all the investment that is being made. I hope he wins the case an get recognised by the great work he has performed.

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  7. Ryan Filgas

    So what about art directors? Does Jeff Koons not get credit for any of his sculptures because he never touched them? Does the photographer Gregory Crewdson not get credit for an image he art directed because an assistant tripped the shutter mechanism for the final image? Wikimedia literally has no case; they should just stop, and beg forgiveness with a fat check.

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  8. Austin Swenson

    If wikimedia wants to say it was the monkey who took the photo, David Slater should just say that he hired the monkey to take the shot and the the monkey was work for hire with a specific agreement to hand over the images so his LLC gets to keep the copyright. That’s how assistants at different studios don’t get to keep the copyright when they shoot in someone’s studio, so why should it really be different if Wikimedia wants to ride on this technicality?

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  9. Ben Perrin

    I think he definitely has a case. He is right about the set-up being a big part of it. I let my friends use my camera, it doesn’t mean they can get the results I get. Besides that, it’s just a d*#k move by the people distributing it. They have the owner on their backs saying he does not approve and they are going ahead anyway.

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  10. Christian Seiler

    I really hope, he wins the case! As others commented, just because the monkey pressed the shutter, doesn’t make him the owner of the photo. I don’t know about the US or any other countries laws, but here in Switzerland an animal is not a person but a “thing” and does not possess any legal rights.
    So, how can they even think that a thing could own a photo, that’s just insane!

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  11. Herm Tjioe

    More monkey business courtesy of Wikimedia

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  12. Kim Farrelly

    Did the monkey assign a licence to Wikipedia for use then? I’m guessing not.

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    Rights to the photographer its his equipment and effort that the photo exists

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  14. Daniel Thullen

    Wow. . .does this mean if an infrared set up is used, the photo is owned by whatever trips the beam? Mr. Slater is right, we take thousands of shots to get one that makes us money to keep going.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Daniel, this is very much part of the argument photogs are making. To those who aren’t in the industry, it’s clicking a button, but damn if that isn’t further from the truth.

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  15. Luis Gonzalez

    Photographer should sue in behalf of the monkey. just saying

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