Monkey Business – Copyright in Photographs

I’m frequently asked whether it’s ok to copy a picture found on the Internet, and use it on a website, or in a newsletter.  My answer is always the same: “not unless you have permission.”  The reason is this: making an unauthorized copy of someone else’s work is copyright infringement, and can subject you to substantial damages – up to $150,000 per work infringed, in extreme cases.

If you want to use a photograph, you need permission from the copyright owner. And the owner of the copyright in a photograph is not the subject of the photograph, but the person who presses the shutter button.

This issue was addressed last year in a funny case involving a selfie taken by a monkey.

In 2011, a photographer traveled to Indonesia to photograph monkeys.  He deliberately left the remote trigger for his camera accessible to the monkeys, and one of the monkeys took several photographs.  The photographer claimed that he owned the copyright in the monkey selfie, and attempted to collect damages for copyright infringement from people who used the photo without his permission.  His opponents claimed that since the monkey pressed the shutter button, the photographer (and copyright owner) was actually the monkey!

The monkey selfie dispute led the United States Copyright Office to issue a clarification of its rules.  The Copyright Office explicitly stated that works created by non-humans are not subject to copyright, including photographs taken by monkeys.  The monkey selfie is in the public domain, which means that it can be used by anyone.

In case you’re wondering, the gorilla image used as an illustration above is from Pixabay, a site that offers copyright-free photos.  No copyright infringement here, friends.