It appears that another animal will have to take over the fight being waged by Naruto, an Indonesian macaque monkey who is the named plaintiff in a lawsuit weighing whether animals have a right to own property. In this instance, it’s about whether animals can own US copyrights.
Naruto, via his self-appointed lawyers from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is in the process of dropping his lawsuit over the now infamous monkey selfies. That’s according to a Friday legal filing with the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which is being asked to hold off on issuing a ruling that everybody believes is going to go against Naruto.
About every conceivable joke has been made about this Planet of the Apes-styled litigation that we’ve been following for two years now. A lower court judge had already ruled against Naruto, stating that monkeys cannot own US copyrights even if they snapped the picture (which actually happened in this case).
Naruto, whose appeal is pending, snatched the camera from a British photographer in 2011 and in the process took a few pictures of himself on the Tangkoko reserve on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The photographer, David Slater, published the photos in a book, Wildlife Personalities. Naruto and PETA sued him and the book’s online publishing platform, Blurb, for copyright infringement. (Slater’s ownership of the selfies are also in doubt because he didn’t take them. Wikipedia has declared them to be a part of the US public domain—an assertion Slater disputes.)
But again, all of this strangeness is about to come to a close. The lawyers for Naruto, Slater, and Blurb told the appeals court (PDF) Friday that an out-of-court settlement was near and that the court should refrain from issuing a ruling.
“The Parties have agreed on a general framework for a settlement subject to the negotiation and resolution of specific terms. Given the current progress of settlement discussions, the Parties are optimistic that they will be able to reach an agreement that will resolve all claims in this matter,” according to the filing.
Nobody would say publicly what the deal is, or why this is happening. But there’s a quirk in US copyright law that explains some, if not all, the reasoning behind it.
US law allows the “prevailing party” in a copyright infringement action, whether they be the plaintiff or defendant, to seek legal fees and costs of the opposing side—but they’re not always guaranteed to be awarded. And during oral arguments in the case last month, a three-judge panel of the court of appeals eviscerated Naruto’s arguments.
Two years of litigation amounts to a boatload of legal fees and costs. PETA could be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars—a sum likely to be reduced or forgiven under terms of the upcoming settlement.
All of which means that PETA, which also made some outrageous arguments about online liability in this litigation, probably doesn’t want to keep the cash meter running. After all, based on decisions and court statements thus far, nobody really expected Naruto to prevail.
PETA’s lawsuit, however, prompted public discourse about the idea of animals owning property. And that’s why this lawsuit may have been about nothing more than monkey business all along.