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Monkey Selfie and Authorship in Copyright Law: The Nigerian and South African Perspectives

Caroline B. Ncube
Desmond O. Oriakhogba


A photograph taken by a monkey is in the centre of a copyright claim in the famous monkey selfie case in the United States of America. Suing as next friend of the monkey, named Naruto, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals contended that copyright in the photograph belongs to the monkey as author of the photograph since the monkey created the photograph unaided by any person. On the motion of the defendants, the case was dismissed by the US district court on the ground that the concept of authorship under US Copyright Act cannot be defined to include non-human animals. The dismissal order was confirmed by a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeal of Ninth Circuit a request for an appeal before a panel of eleven judges of the appellate court was denied. This paper reviews the case in the light of the concept of authorship and ownership, with specific focus on the authorship of photographs, under the Nigerian Copyright Act and South African Copyright Act. In so doing, it examines and relies on Ginsburg's six principles for testing authorship to test the authorship of photographs under the Acts. It also relies on the concepts of subjective rights and legal personality to explain the implication of conferring copyright ownership on non-human animals. It argues that for authorship of and ownership of the copyright in a photograph to be established under the Nigerian Copyright Act and South African Copyright Act, a legal person must have created the photograph. Consequently, for the purposes of argument, the paper proceeds on the assumption that the monkey selfie case originated from Nigeria or South Africa. After analysing relevant statutory provisions and case law, the paper finds that the Nigerian Copyright Act and the South African Copyright Act do not envisage the conferral of authorship in particular, and copyright protection in general, to a non-human animal. It then concludes that the courts in both countries would not reach a different conclusion from the one made by the US courts.

Keywords:  Monkey selfie; authorship; copyright; photographs; Nigeria; South Africa.

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eISSN: 1727-3781