Friday, 2 September 2016

Monkey selfie: Animal charity Peta challenges ruling - BBC News

BBC News reported a while ago that Peta, the animal rights charity, with which I usually have complete sympathy, is arguing in a court in California that copyright in the now-famous macaque self-portrait belongs to the photographer. It sounds as if there is some dispute about which monkey took the photo (by which I mean pressed the shutter release or whatever it's called on a digital camera, as I can't imagine that he or she had the faintest idea what the action would lead to), but that leaves the main point that the charity argues that "[n]othing in the Copyright Act limits its application to human authors…".

I claim no particular expertise in U.S. copyright law, and am prepared to accept that there is at least an arguable case to support that proposition. Whether that justifies Peta spending charitable funds on a lawsuit which most would consider frivolous is another matter. Ever since I read Peter Singer's "canonical" (nice word - thanks Wikipedia) book Animal Liberation (here on Amazon), one of the many ways in which I distracted myself from the grinding boredom of articles of clerkship (1978-1980), I have tried to be as conscious of speciesism as of racism and sexism. I haven't perfected it, but I hope I have got close.

I can't put my hands on my well-worn copy (the paperback version of the first (1975) edition, published 1977) just at the moment, but I don't think it contains anything about animals' copyright. [later: I have found it now, and there is no entry in the index for "copyright" or "intellectual property", or even just "property", which isn't conclusive but will do for now.] In UK copyright law, the author of a work (and therefore, usually, the first owner of copyright in it) is the person who creates it. A person is (this from the Oxford Companion to Law) typically defined as "a being, entity or unit which can bear legal rights and duties". The word "being" without the adjective "human" seems to leave open the possibility of animals being authors. However, legal personality, the article in the Companion goes on, has to be distinguished from legal status, citing as an example that we can say the legal status of an animal [a non-human animal, I would add, not for the avoidance of doubt but to highlight the ambiguity or inaccuracy of the original statement] is that of property and that of a human is a person.* Professor Singer might, I imagine, take issue with the narrow definition of "person", especially as the whole point of his thesis is, as I understood it, that we should regard animals as having rights (though not necessarily accompanying duties). However, that is clearly the way the law works and I don't see any way for Peta to put forward a case for an alternative interpretation in the English courts, even if the Charity Commission would let them.

Now that I have found my copy of the book again, I'll search it for any suggestion that animals' rights should extend to owning property, and in particular intellectual property. I'm fairly confident that, however proprietorial some animals might be, Professor Singer didn't advocate extending legal personality to them to that extent.

Not Lucy's book
*See further, R. Tur, 'The "Person" in Law', in A Peacocke and G Gillett (eds), Persons and Personality: A Contemporary Inquiry (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 121, and N Naffine, 'Who are Law's Persons? From Cheshire Cats to Responsible Subjects' (2003) 66/3 Modern Law Review 346. Professor Naffine is also the author of the article in the Oxford Companion to Law to which I referred and from which I repeat these two references.

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