Photographer Went Broke After Long Copyright Battle

The infamous photo, captured when the monkey pressed the shutter, has become the subject of a years-long copyright dispute that has left Slater broke. Photo: David Slater

Freelance photographer David Slater, once one of the most talked-about photographers in the world because of his serendipitous ‘monkey selfies,’ is now considering dog walking… or giving tennis lessons. According to The Guardian, the selfsame selfie that made Slater famous has left him broke after years of legal disputes between Slater and both Wikimedia and PETA.

In case you’ve not been following this strangest of copyright battles, the details are as follows. In 2011, Slater traveled to Sulawesi, Indonesia where, by his account, he managed to coax some macaques to start playing with his camera gear. Slater did this on purpose, he says, because he was having trouble getting a close up wide-angle shot of the monkeys with their eyes open.

His gambit worked. One of the macaques took a few ‘selfies’ that immediately went viral, earning Slater a few thousand pounds… then the legal troubles started.

Wikimedia refused to take down the photo at Slater’s request, claiming that he wasn’t the copyright holder since he didn’t press the shutter. Then the US Copyright Office ruled that animals cannot own copyrights, leaving the photo ostensibly author-less. And finally, since Slater continues to claim copyright, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued him on behalf of the macaque in 2015.

That pretty much brings us to yesterday’s article in The Guardian, in which Slater admits that years of legal battles have left him broke and ready to ‘pack it all in.’ He couldn’t even afford the airfare to attend his own trial in San Francisco this week—instead, he watched a livestream of the trial from his home in the UK.

Slater’s current predicament isn’t just a cautionary tale for photographers who dream of going viral, it offers fascinating insights into the archaic laws surrounding authorship and copyright. Of course, the idea that this case might prevent future photographers from going through something similar is probably small consolation for Slater at this junction.