This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 4/23/18.
And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: a decision from the Ninth Circuit in the Monkey Selfie case.
Upshot: the case remains dismissed, and the defendants get to recover attorney fees for the appeal. There’s also relatively little to say on the copyright front. This case has turned almost entirely into litigation about standing and proven to be a significant wrench in the works for any future litigation anyone, but PETA in particular, might want to bring on behalf of animals.
First, the court skewers PETA over the quality of its “friendship” with Naruto, casting significant side-eye towards PETA’s apparent settlement of the lawsuit, which led to its attempt to dismiss the appeal, while at the same time leaving some question as to whether Naruto himself was down with this settlement and plan to dismiss his appeal. From footnote 3:
We feel compelled to note that PETA’s deficiencies in this regard go far beyond its failure to plead a significant relationship with Naruto. Indeed, if any such relationship exists, PETA appears to have failed to live up to the title of “friend.” After seeing the proverbial writing on the wall at oral argument, PETA and Appellees filed a motion asking this court to dismiss Naruto’s appeal and to vacate the district court’s adverse judgment, representing that PETA’s claims against Slater had been settled. It remains unclear what claims PETA purported to be “settling,” since the court was under the impression this lawsuit was about Naruto’s claims, and per PETA’s motion, Naruto was “not a party to the settlement,” nor were Naruto’s claims settled therein. Nevertheless, PETA apparently obtained something fromthe settlement with Slater, although not anything that would necessarily go to Naruto: As “part of the arrangement,” Slater agreed to pay a quarter of his earnings from the monkey selfie book “to charities that protect the habitat of Naruto and other crested macaques in Indonesia.” See Settlement Reached: ‘Monkey Selfie’ Case Broke New GroundForAnimal Rights, PETA, https://www.peta.org/blog/settlementreached-monkey- selfie-case-broke-new-ground-animal-rights/ (last visited Apr. 5, 2018). But now, in the wake of PETA’s proposed dismissal, Naruto is left without an advocate, his supposed “friend” having abandoned Naruto’s substantive claims in what appears to be an effort to prevent the publication of a decision adverse to PETA’s institutional interests. Were he capable of recognizing this abandonment, we wonder whether Naruto might initiate an action for breach of confidential relationship against his (former) next friend, PETA, for its failure to pursue his interests before its own. Puzzlingly, while representing to the world that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way,” see PETA, https://peta.org (last visited Apr. 5, 2018), PETA seems to employ Naruto as an unwitting pawn in its ideological goals. Yet this is precisely what is to be avoided by requiring next friends to have a significant relationship with, rather than an institutional interest in, the incompetent party—a point made by ChiefJustice Rehnquist in Lenhard v. Wolff, 443 U.S. 1306, 1312 (1979). See infra page 9 for exact language.
But repudiating PETA’s “next friend” standing doesn’t end the inquiry. There is a 2004 case from the Ninth Circuit, Cetacean Community v. Bush, which established the precedent that animals might be able to sue for themselves, even without a “next friend” to do the suing for them. The court decides it has to defer to that precedent, although so reluctantly as to undermine its persuasive effect in future cases.
Reaching that conclusion didn’t end the inquiry, however. Cetacean Community means that animals might be theoretically able to sue for themselves in the Ninth Circuit, but it doesn’t mean they will necessarily have a viable claim. To figure out whether they do, we have to look at the applicable statute, which in this case is the Copyright Act. And here the court concludes that Naruto, being a monkey, has no standing to sue for copyright infringement.
Several provisions of the Copyright Act also persuade us against the conclusion that animals have statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act. See Davis v. Mich. Dep’t of Treasury, 489 U.S. 803, 809 (1989) (“It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”). For example, the “children” of an “author,” “whether legitimate or not,” can inherit certain rights under the Copyright Act. See 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, 201, 203, 304. Also, an author’s “widow or widower owns the author’s entire termination interest unless there are any surviving children or grandchildren of the author, in which case the widow or widower owns one-half of the author’s interest.” Id. § 203(a)(2)(A). The terms “children,” “grandchildren,” “legitimate,” “widow,” and “widower” all imply humanity and necessarily exclude animals that do not marry and do not have heirs entitled to property by law. Based on this court’s decision in Cetacean and the text of the Copyright Act as a whole, the district court did not err in concluding that Naruto—and, more broadly, animals other than humans—lack statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act.
So there you go. Our long national nightmare of not knowing whether any random monkey might be able to sue for copyright infringement has been resolved. We may now go about our lives confident in the knowledge that they cannot, at least not in the Ninth Circuit.