Anyone who writes for a living has spent at least a few random moments pondering the famed Infinite Monkey Theorem.
That’s the scientific theory that states that an infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of typewriters would eventually reproduce the complete works of William Shakespeare by chance.
Tragically, I am willing to concede that it would take far fewer monkeys to pound out my collected works, but that’s not today’s vital legal point.
No, the point — or rather the question — is this: if you gave a monkey a camera and he took some awesome photographs, would he be entitled to the copyright on the pictures he took?
It’s not an entirely stupid question, considering that is the central point of a case argued last week before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.
I became fascinated with this case because I have an enquiring mind and am keenly interested in legal issues affecting modern journalism. Ha ha ha. I am, of course, lying. I found myself reading about this case because it involves funny pictures taken by an adorable monkey.
It all began in 2011 when a British wildlife photographer named David Slater left a camera unattended in the Tangkoko Batuangus Nature Reserve in Indonesia and it was scooped up by Naruto, a six-year-old macaque monkey with a toothy grin and a knack for pressing a camera button.
As you have no doubt already deduced, Naruto looked into the lens, made a bunch of adorable facial expressions, and snapped a series of selfies of his monkey mug that shot to fame around the world.
"A Sulawesi crested black macaque pulls one of several funny faces during its own photo shoot, seemingly aware of its own reflection in the lens," Slater later wrote in a book called Wildlife Personalities, which included the selfies. "My experience of these monkeys suggested that they were not just highly intelligent but were also aware of themselves... The shutter was pressed by the monkey."
Which is when the controversial animal rights group PETA decided that Naruto, not Slater, deserved the credit and the cash for the famous "monkey selfies" published in the book.
According to news reports, PETA went to court, arguing that Naruto was the legal creator of the photos and that Slater had infringed on the monkey’s copyright. It sought a court order in 2015 allowing it to administer all proceeds from the photos to benefit the monkey.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick III dismissed the case in January 2016, citing a previous court decision that said a law does not apply to animals unless it "plainly" says "animal" rather than "persons" or "human beings."
"The Copyright Act does not ‘plainly’ extend the concept of authorship or statutory standing to animals," Orrick wrote in his decision, according to the San Francisco Examiner. "To the contrary, there is no mention of animals anywhere in the act."
So man won the first decision, but, hey hey, the monkey isn’t about to throw in the legal towel. On Naruto’s behalf, PETA is appealing the ruling that the cute monkey does not have legal ownership of the photographs he took of himself.
"In this case, Naruto — who has been accustomed to cameras throughout his life — saw himself in the reflection of the lens, drew the connection between pressing the shutter release and the change in his reflection, and made different facial expressions while pressing the shutter release," the animal rights group argues on its website.
"If successful, this will be the first time that an animal is declared the owner of property, instead of being declared a piece of property himself."
The point is, a considerable amount of monkey business was on the docket last Wednesday when the case was argued, although no decision was released.
PETA attorney David Schwarz reportedly claimed the case came down to one simple fact: photographs can be copyrighted and Naruto is the author.
On the other hand, Andrew Dhuey, the attorney for the photographer, Slater, suggested the legal antics were more of a publicity stunt by PETA than a lawsuit and quipped after the hearing that Naruto made a tactical mistake by not appearing in court.
"It’s like he doesn’t even care," he said before walking away from media cameras.
While I have never been a major fan of PETA, I have found myself quietly rooting for Naruto the monkey to swing his way to victory in this landmark case. Call me a monkey’s uncle if you must, but it would be cool to see Naruto strutting around and shaking his attorney’s hands after registering a historic court victory.
I’m not sure what he’d do with the money, but I’m guessing there are a lot of things that would make a celebrity monkey happy, possibly a lifetime supply of bananas, a tiny Armani suit, maybe one of those little cars that you used to see clowns driving in the circus or even the complete DVD collection of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, the 1970s Saturday morning comedy-action TV series in which chimpanzee spies were able to talk thanks to lame voiceovers.
The truth is, I grew up watching Lassie and Rin Tin Tin and The Littlest Hobo and I like to think somebody threw those celebrity dogs a few bones for all the crazy stuff they were forced to do in every (bad word) episode. Ditto Cheetah, the wacky little chimp who starred alongside Tarzan in all those zany jungle movies we loved back in the day.
So, good luck, Naruto, I seriously hope the chimps fall where they may. What with not being a human being, you don’t have a lot of bargaining chimps in this case, but hopefully the judges will remember another famous saying cited by one of the lawyers: Monkey see, monkey sue!