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Dismissal of "Monkey Selfies” Case Affirmed

In a copyright infringement case involving a crested macaque known as Naruto,  who allegedly took several photographs of himself (“monkey selfies”) with a wildlife photographer’s camera, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on April 23, 2018, affirmed a federal district court’s judgment dismissing the case. The majority opinion, which was written by Judge Carlos Bea, concluded that Naruto failed to establish statutory standing under the Copyright Act.

The majority opinion expressed doubt that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which brought the suit as next friend on Naruto’s behalf, could validly assert “next friend” status because PETA did not claim to have a relationship with Naruto that was any more significant than its relationship with any other animal. Thus, PETA failed to meet the “significant relationship” requirement and could not sue as Naruto’s next friend.  In a footnote, the majority opinion noted that PETA settled the case, even though it was unclear what claims PETA purported to be settling. In addition, Naruto was not a party to the settlement, nor were his claims settled therein. The majority opinion criticized PETA for seeming to employ Naruto as an unwitting pawn in its ideological goals.

 Although PETA could not sue as Naruto’s next friend, Naruto’s Article III standing was not dependent on PETA’s sufficiency as a guardian or next friend. The complaint alleged that Naruto was the author of the monkey selfies, that he had suffered economic harms as a result of the defendants’ infringing conduct, and that these harms could be addressed by a judgment declaring Naruto as the author and owner of the monkey selfies. Therefore, the majority opinion concluded the complaint alleged facts sufficient to establish Article III standing.

However, with regard to statutory standing under the Copyright Act, the majority opinion noted the Copyright Act does not expressly authorize animals to file copyright infringement suits. Under the rule established in Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004), if an act of Congress plainly states that animals have statutory standing, then animals have statutory standing. If the statute does not plainly so state, then animals do not have statutory standing.  The Copyright Act does not expressly authorize animals to file copyright infringement suits. Therefore, based on the precedent in Cetacean, Naruto lacked statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act.

Judge N. Randy Smith wrote a separate opinion in which he agreed that the case should be dismissed. However, Judge Smith disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that next-friend standing is nonjurisdictional. Judge Smith concluded that PETA used Naruto as a “pawn to be manipulated on a chessboard larger than his own case.”

Lexis Advanced subscribers can access the full opinion at:   Naruto v. Slater, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 10129

Lexis subscribers can access the full opinion at:  Naruto v. Slater, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 10129

Author:  Hans Thielman, Lexis-Nexis Case Law Editor


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