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Simian selfie stupidity: Macaque snap sparks Wikipedia copyright row

Jimbo Wales versus the little guy

Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales

Comment When a black macaque on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi took a selfie using photographer David Slater’s camera in 2011, it broke the barrier between man and monkey in more ways than one.

Yes, it showed the world that speechless beasts are as self-obsessed – and location-aware – as humans. Give a monkey a camera and, inevitably, it will take a selfie.

Accordingly, the picture in question was picked up by the Daily Telegraph, along with the rest of the internet.

But human affairs are more complicated than the law of the jungle, and now legal eagles are involved. Users of Wikipedia took the monkey shot for their own and posted it on the open-source encyclopedia with the claim that it was in the "Public Domain" – as its creator was a non-human. That means anybody can now scrape or download the simian selfie and use it without paying a penny in royalties. Who heard of a monkey with a lawyer, after all?

Yet Slater is reported to have asked Wikipedia to take the photo down, saying he owns the copyright – but the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, has refused.

The Wikifiddlers claim that because the photo was taken by an animal (the macaque pressed the shutter on the infamous pic), and no animal can own copyright, Wikimedia is free to effectively republish the snap freely.

Oh, do stop monkeying around

The open rights crowd, predictably, have taken up arms on behalf of the monkey, belittling the photographer’s claims and making legal pronouncements on the basis that the image is in the “public domain".

We’ve been here before with the open rights mob – that crowd we’re supposed to believe is so wise it will steer us no wrong – whose interests just happened to be aligned with those of massive organisations.

They marched to defend Google, too, when the content-free ad network tried to hoover up the world’s books for itself. Nine years ago, Google started scanning 20 million library books for its Library Project just because it could.

Defenders saw this as some massive work of public good – a public service, digitising precious works and making them available to the masses.

But the Association of American Publishers and the American Society of Media Photographers took exception, as Google had started scanning works that were still under copyright. They took Google to court in separate legal disputes. In its final settlement, Google was forced to let copyright owners of books scanned by Google opt out of the programme. Yet Google was also given the unique right to digitise and make money from "orphan works," titles whose rights are controlled by authors and publishers who have yet to come forward.

Here’s how Google’s director of content partnerships Tom Turvey justified the scanning: “If a work is truly orphaned, by definition it has no copyright owner to ‘opt out’ of the database.”

There’s plenty to disagree with in that sentence and to be said about transfer of ownership. But the biggest issue is Google – a massive commercial operation that’s answerable to shareholders – distributing orphaned works for which it need not pay.

The Google library project achieves three things: search traffic, ads against returns of search sold for money, and ads against the book.

Moreover, in the modern era of the ebook, Google is positioning to have a presence against Apple’s iPad as a reader and against Amazon’s Kindle. Google’s still working out how exactly to do that, but it’s at least got content to use should it need it.

Which brings us back to the monkey.

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