No Copyright for Animals, Ghosts or God

In a rare update to the US Copyright Office’s (USCO) guidance, which was last amended 30 years ago, it was stated said that an animal, ghost or god cannot have their ‘work’ registered for copyright.

A statement issued by USCO said that it cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings, although it may register a work where the application or the deposit copy states that the work was inspired by a divine spirit.

The ruling came about following the debate over who has copyright over a ‘selfie’ taken by a monkey after British photographer David Slater came across a crested black macaque during a trip through an Indonesian national park.

The monkey ended up taking a photo using Mr Slater’s camera, which later appeared on Wikimedia’s database of free photos for public use. However, Mr Slater demanded the photo be taken down, saying it was his photo. His claim was disputed by Wikimedia, and the new rules from the USCO appear to support their stance.

The rules even cite the example of “a photograph taken by a monkey” as an illustration of work that would not be covered by copyright, as well as a mural painted by an elephant and driftwood shaped and smoothed by the ocean.

The law governing animals producing copyrightable works is similar in the UK to the US and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) agrees that, under UK law, animals cannot own copyright.

However, a spokeswoman for the IPO added that the question as to whether the photographer owns copyright is more complex, as it depends on whether he or she has made a creative contribution to the work, which is a decision that can only be made by the courts.

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Nigel is the Managing Partner and Head of Litigation and Dispute Resolution in the London office of Mackrell Turner Garrett.