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Naruto v. Slater

USCA, Ninth Circuit, April 23, 2018

Ninth Circuit affirms dismissal of copyright infringement action over “monkey selfies,” ruling that animals do not have statutory standing under the Copyright Act.

Plaintiff Naruto, a macaque monkey living on an island in Indonesia, took a number of selfies with a camera that wildlife photographer David Slater left unattended on a wildlife reserve.  Slater and co-defendants Wildlife Personalities, Ltd. and Blurb, Inc. produced a book featuring Naruto’s photos. In the book, Slater and Wildlife claimed copyright ownership of Naruto’s works, despite captions that stated that Naruto had taken the photos.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Dr. Antje Englehardt, who has studied the macaque monkeys on Naruto’s reserve, and has known and monitored Naruto since birth, initiated suit as “next friends” of Naruto, asserting claims for copyright infringement on Naruto’s behalf against Slater, Wildlife and Blurb. Defendants moved to dismiss on the basis that Naruto lacked both Article III standing and statutory standing under the Copyright Act. The district court held that Naruto, as an animal and not a human, could not establish statutory standing under the Copyright Act, and determined that it was unnecessary to reach the question of Article III standing. PETA and Englehardt appealed, although Dr. Englehardt subsequently withdrew from the litigation.

The parties subsequently settled the case, with Slater agreeing to donate 25 percent of his gross proceeds from the pictures to charities working to protect monkeys, and moved jointly to dismiss the appeal. The Ninth Circuit rejected the request, noting that considerable resources had already been expended by the court, and further, that Naruto was not a party to the settlement agreement.

Ruling on the merits of the appeal, a majority of the panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal on the grounds that Naruto, as an animal, lacked statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act. 

As an initial matter, however, the majority held that PETA did not establish next friend status to Naruto. First, PETA had failed to establish any “significant relationship” with Naruto, which is the touchstone of the next friend doctrine. Second, the court explained that, under Supreme Court precedent, the scope of the next friend doctrine is no broader than what is permitted by statute, and that no such express authorization was provided in the Copyright Act.

The majority opinion explained that PETA’s lack of next friend standing did not resolve the question of Naruto’s independent standing to assert a copyright claim. In considering Naruto’s Article III standing —  a jurisdictional requirement — the majority decision explained that it was bound by the Ninth Circuit’s 2004 decision in Cetacean Community v. Bush, which, as the majority characterized it, held that “non-human animals enjoy constitutional standing to pursue claims in federal court.” Because the complaint alleged that Naruto was the owner of the photos in the Monkey Selfie book, and had suffered harm as a result of defendants’ conduct that could be redressed by the court, he had fairly stated a “case or controversy” and thus had sufficiently alleged standing under Article III. While bound by the decision in Cetacean, the majority expressed strong disagreement with its holding, calling on the Ninth Circuit to re-examine its holding. 

Despite Naruto’s Article III standing, however, the court held that the monkey lacked statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act. As the majority explained, Cetacean set forth a bright line rule for statutory standing of animals: “If an Act of Congress plainly states that animals have statutory standing, then animals have statutory standing. If the statute does not so plainly state, then animals do not have statutory standing.” Because the Copyright Act does not expressly authorize animals to file copyright infringement actions, the majority held that Naruto lacked statutory standing to do so. 

In a concurring opinion, one judge on the panel disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that Naturo’s Article III standing could be resolved independently of PETA’s next friend status. The concurrence explained that, under that view, next friend standing is an Article III jurisdictional issue and that, broadly, next friend standing cannot be asserted in behalf of animals.