Skip to main content

Wikimedia denies photographer's claim to a monkey's selfie

Wikimedia denies photographer's claim to a monkey's selfie

Share this story

If a monkey takes a selfie, who owns the photo? It isn't the camera's human owner, at least according to Wikimedia. As part of its first transparency report, which outlines government and corporate requests for user information and content takedown, Wikimedia has included a number of brief anecdotes illustrating the type of requests that it gets, and one of them has to do with a photograph taken by a monkey. The photo made its way onto Wikimedia Commons, and when the photographer requested that it be taken down, Wikimedia denied it, claiming he didn't own its copyright.

"He can't own the photograph, because he didn't take the photograph."

Wikipedia's editors said, in fact, no one could lay specific claim to the photo. They asserted that it was in the public domain, because "as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested." Intellectual property lawyer Brad Newberg, a partner at the firm Reed Smith, agreed. "Just because he owns the camera, he can't own the photograph, because he didn't take the photograph. He didn't choose the lighting, he didn't choose the angle," Newberg tells The Verge. That doesn't, however, mean that someone can never copyright a photograph they didn't take. "If the photographer actually developed it in a certain way, made some tweaks, used some lighting to make some original choices, and said essentially 'Look at my collaboration with this monkey,' then he would have had some part of the creative process."

So who actually owns the photo? Wikipedia is probably right to say it's in the public domain; even if the monkey had an owner, it's unlikely they would be able to claim copyright, especially given the fact that it was taken by accident. And the animal itself is unlikely to complain. "In all my years, I've never had a monkey walk into the office and have me represent it," says Newberg.

Comparatively, Wikimedia received very few requests

Other strange requests include a language center claiming copyright over an entire language and takedown requests for books that are quite evidently in the public domain at this point. Somewhat surprisingly, Wikimedia's transparency report otherwise doesn't have a whole lot to see. Perhaps because of its open nature, Wikimedia seemingly doesn't have a lot of information that governments of the world — or any other party for that matter — are looking for and can't get to. From June 2012 through June 2014, Wikimedia only saw 56 requests for user data. Eight of those requests resulted in Wikimedia handing over information, with 11 accounts affected in total.

Takedown and alteration requests were also fairly uncommon. Wikimedia says that it received 304 general takedown and alteration requests and denied all of them — requests falling under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act were a slightly different story, however. There were 58 of those requests, and 24 of them were granted. The bulk of all of these requests, both takedowns and those for user information, have come from the US. For takedowns and alterations, the English-language Wikipedia was the primary subject, with Wikimedia Commons often trailing behind it.

As Wikimedia points out, it's a far smaller target than other large web companies that have released similar reports. It created a diagram outlining just how dramatic the difference is, which you can view below.

By Wikimedia's calculations, that's over 27,000 requests and 17,000 answers each from Google and Facebook, to 13 and 0 for itself between July 2012 and June 2013. It's not really a competition or even necessarily any one company's fault — it's more a matter of what type of data their business needs or tends to collect, and Google and Facebook receive a lot more personal data. In that sense these aren't actually all that comparable, aside from all being tech companies, but Wikimedia has a vested interest in making sure that its users feel safe in contributing content and knowledge. Its whole existence would fall apart if they didn't, and releasing these surprisingly low figures helps to reinforce users' comfort.

Adi Robertson contributed to this report.