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Monkeys taking selfies, elephants making art, and the question of privacy11 min read

July 30, 2021 7 min read


Monkeys taking selfies, elephants making art, and the question of privacy11 min read

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Part 2 of this story is available. Click on the next page at the bottom of this article.

In 2011, the internet was taken by storm when a macaque took David Slater’s camera, and took a selfie! Slater was travelling in the jungles of Indonesia when the camera-friendly and highly photogenic Naruto snapped the ‘monkey selfie’.

Naruto’s famous “moneky selfie” that threw the Judiciary over copyright issues.
Image: NPR

Slater developed the photograph and began selling the prints. Meanwhile, Wikipedia uploaded the image on its commons channel. Slater was not too happy about this because he thought that he owned the picture. He believed it to be his copyright (Copyright is legal ownership given to an originator for using, selling, or performing a work of art). However, Wikipedia believed that the photograph was taken by Naruto, and since animals cannot have copyright, it belonged to the public domain. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) jumped right in to ensure that Naruto gets legal rights for the picture he took! And thus, ensued a long court case answering many never-addressed-before questions:

Can animals have copyright?
Who owns the image?
What is the ethical way to use the money that comes out of the sale of the image

Image: Giphy

But there are other very important questions that are often left unaddressed:
What about an animal’s right to privacy?
Did Naruto want his picture to be circulated?
Did he know he will become an internet sensation? Did he want that?
Whose decision is it to take a picture from the wild and make it available for the world to see? Someone wouldn’t dare do that with humans.
So, what about non-humans?
Let’s dive deeper into these ideas…

If you are wondering what happened to the “monkey selfie” case, stick with us. You will find the result of the long judicial battle at the end of page 2.

If Naruto’s case has you scratching your head, I will like you to meet Ruby!

Image: Wikipedia

Ruby was an elephant in Phoenix Zoo who could paint like a dream! One of her paintings fetched a price of 25,000 USD. That got you thinking about getting your furry friends to try their hands at art, didn’t it? Well, it’s not so easy. Ruby’s trainer spent days working on honing Ruby’s skill, prompting the positioning of the strokes to ensure that the resultant piece looks a certain way. So copyright was never an issue, as the intent of the art rested with the trainer and not Ruby.

But if the act of creating is what creates art, then isn’t Ruby also the artist? But there is no provision in the law to account for non-humans as recognised copyright-owning artists. Ruby’s position is further complicated by the fact that she was an elephant in captivity, and in the absence of agency.

Ruby’s beautiful work. Image: Daily Dot

What is agency?
Agency is the natural ability for individuals to be autonomous and makes their own decisions.

So, can agency only be a human privilege? Or should it be a humane privilege. One alphabet but it makes a world of a difference.

Take for instance, the case of the bottlenose dolphin that swam into a tributary of a New Jersey river. The dolphin is a saltwater creature and to find it in the river was strange in itself. However, all efforts to rehabilitate the dolphin fell through and the dolphin was put to rest. But a journalist wanted to determine the reason for this movement and death. She filed a request to see the documents of the dolphin’s death but was denied permission citing the dolphin’s right to medical privacy. This was the first time, personhood was extended beyond humans.

Personhood is defined as the ability to possess rights, and includes rights to privacy.

But why are talking about this, now?

All that fascinating backstory was to lay the context for a recent ruling by the Uttarakhand Government. The State Government has decided to keep the Jim Corbett National Park and the Rajaji Tiger Reserve open throughout the year to boost tourism. This means that people can visit anytime of the year for tiger spotting!

A tiger at the Jim Corbett National Park. Image: Wikipedia

Why is this a problem?
Pause, think and flip to page 2 to know more.

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