The author who creates a work initially owns the copyright in the work. The writer who writes the next novel, the painter who magically makes the canvas come alive, the musician who records the next hit all initially own the copyright in their work.
But who is an author? Or rather, can an author be an “it”? A few days ago, I laughed as I read about a macaque monkey who snapped away with an unattended camera and took this self-portrait. The blog techdirt wondered who owns the copyright in the photograph.
As an avid photographer, I am sympathetic to photographers and the issues that they face. But, photographer David Slater probably never owned the copyright to the photographs that the monkeys took. Carter News paid him for the photographs regardless so for Mr. Slater, he probably doesn’t care too much one way or the other.
So getting back to techdirt’s question, who does own the copyright? Probably nobody. Copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” Although the copyright statutes never define who an “author” is, the language of the statute consistently refer to “persons”, “natural persons” and other language that limits copyright protection to those works created by people.
Every once in a while, a court is faced with the question of who owns a copyright in a book “authored” by non-human spiritual beings. The courts hold that copyright laws do not protect the creations of works by non-humans — whether spiritual beings, aliens or the like. Sadly, if E.T. created any works during his short stay on earth, U.S. copyright will not protect those works.
Actually, this does come up more often when discussing computer programs and computer-generated works. But, to answer techdirt’s question, only works created by humans receive copyright protection. Different arguments may arise if Mr. Slater had directed the monkeys, but it doesn’t sound like he did so here.
Anyone want to make the case that U.S. copyright law protects the monkey’s masterpiece?