Infinite Monkey Copyright Theory

The infinite monkey theory states;

“A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.”

We can now amend this theory;
“A monkey hitting the shutter of a camera for an infinite amount of time will surely take a great picture, but who will own the copyright?”

Macaque Monkey by Macaque Mokey or David Slater

David Slater a British photographer has stirred up an interesting question which has split some groups. Slater took a trip to Indonesia in 2011 and was trekking through the jungle. While in the jungle he came across a group of monkeys, setting his camera on a tripod the monkeys were climbing over his gear and one took a selfie. These pictures are now the famous monkey selfies.
A new chapter in the story surfaced a few days ago with an on-going dispute with Wikipedia.
David Slater had sold the “monkey selfies” to several publications and asked Wikipedia to take down the image from Wikipedia Commons as they were infringing his copyright. Wikipedia disagreed and refused to do so. Wikipedia’s opinion is that the copyright is not owned by anybody as it is not eligible to be copyrighted.

Slater’s argument is quite good. He says he set the camera up on a tripod and did all the post processing work; the monkey just took the picture. The monkey it could be said was his assistant and therefore he (Slater) is the copyright holder.
David Slater is basically using similar rules to when a photographer is hired to work as an assistant and may presses the trigger, but the copyright is held with main photographer.
Yet the monkey is also the subject and how many assistants are also the subject of photographs they are assisting on?

Copyright law, most people would agree is outdated and written for a different world. Yet under current copyright law only a person (meaning human) can own the copyright of an image, the owner of the copyright is the person who takes the picture not the owner of the camera. This does not mean all those strangers who have taken pictures for you on holiday now can sue you, because in a loose verbal contract you have hired them.

Did Slater enter a contract with the monkey? Of course not, unless his name was Ceasar, as well only adults (humans) can enter into contracts.


Wikipedia’s License Detail stating; a work of a non-human”

Wikipedia claims in its report on the take down request;

“To claim copyright, the photographer would have had to make substantial contributions to the final image, and even then, they’d only have copyright for those alterations, not the underlying image. This means that there was no one on whom to bestow copyright, so the image falls into the public domain,”

Substantial contributions meaning; framing, lighting and direction of the subject, since David Slater set the camera on a tripod and the monkeys took over 100 pictures; some of them blurry, some of the floor, yet there were a few good images. This shows that the monkey was in command and David had very little with taking the pictures.

Copyright infringement is a big deal and there have been many situations where images have been misappropriated by accident or on purpose, then spilled all over the web giving copyright owners nearly no hope in regaining control their copyrighted images. David had control until they were added to Wikipedia Commons meaning it was free for people to use on blogs, articles and in publications, with a loss of income form licenses for Slater.
David Slater claims that;

“That trip cost me about £2,000 for that monkey shot. Not to mention the £5,000 of equipment I carried, the insurance, the computer stuff I used to process the images. Photography is an expensive profession that’s being encroached upon. They’re taking our livelihoods away…..For every 10,000 images I take, one makes money that keeps me going. And that was one of those images. It was like a year of work, really”

Although this quote is a simplistic statement of his business, I would disagree that this was the only shot that he sold and that he made a loss on the trip. The Photo is big money though and he wants the money.

David Slater is right in one area; the case can only be settled in court at a cost of £10,000.
The situation here is one of logic and the law. On one hand I would have said that copyright of the image belongs to David Slater, this is logical. He was the photographer there, it was his camera and the monkey took a fluky shot. Yet the law (with my arm chair lawyer robes on) seems to side with Wikipedia as David, apart from setting up the camera, had very little with taking the picture and only edited and distributed the image.

What do you think, is Wikipedia right to say that no one holds the copyright or is it David Slater’s image? Let me know in the comment box below.


8 thoughts on “Infinite Monkey Copyright Theory

  1. I think Wikipedia is making a monkey out of David Slater. Where did the monkey get the camera from? Did it choose the aperture setting, ISO, shutter speed? Did it takeout the simian card, fire up CS6 and process it? Case dismissed in favour of Mr. Slater

  2. I did try to look at the properties but the camera settings have been stripped from the meta data. Due to the images all have good exposure, I would hypothesize that it was set to auto or aperture/shutter priority. This would add more weight to no one owning the copyright. Copyright law seems to ignore everything that takes place after the picture is taken. Acting as the devil’s advocate (or monkey’s advocate), I would have to object to your argument including post processing.
    The only hope I can see for David is if he can show that the edited version is different enough to the captured image, because then he could argue that no one owns the copyright to the captured image but he has changed the image enough to class his edited version as a transformable piece of art.

  3. I guess you can look at this two ways, from the perspective of fairness and from the perspective of a lawyer. Perspective Number 1 would ask: “who is the most deserving to receive the monetary value resulting from this image? Would it be the monkey who accidentally pressed the shutter release? Or would it be any person who happened to see the image after it was posted? Or would it be the photographer who visualized the potential, set up the camera, decided when to stop the action, downloaded the resulting images, made the crucial decision as to which image was the best, processed that image, and was selling it to several clients?” Perspective Number 2 would ask: “How can I interpret the original intent of this law to avoid paying anything for this image?”

    • In the court of law the perspective would be legal. I am not sure why they don’t negotiate a way for wikipedia to keep the image but the license to be changed in some way.

      One of the problems with copyright law with digital content is that it is so out of date with no global agreements. David slater is British and wikipedia is based in America where should the case be held, if it is in the states did David Slater register the image.

      It will be interesting to see what will happen in the future and what precedents this may set.

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