Are Copyrighted Works Only by and for Humans? The Copyright Planet of the Apes and Robots

Why should humans own all the world’s copyrights? The question is prompted by a photograph that’s made worldwide news. In Indonesia, a female crested black macaque monkey picked up a camera owned by photographer David Slater. I won’t focus much on the story of the monkey and her selfie because that topic has already been well-discussed in the media. Yet the story sets the table for more intriguing and ultimately more important issues.

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Prince of Fair Use

Can a painter/collage artist use copyrighted photographs in his works without permission of the photographer? In a closely-watched case, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said in April that the answer is mostly a “yes.”

The case is important because of the desire and need in culture for artists to refer to other works and artists in order to express themselves — and to connect with the cultural references all around us in popular culture. It just so happens that much of that popular culture is protected by copyright (think of Mickey Mouse, Ansel Adams’ works, the movie Children of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, and so so much more). Seeking permission is time-consuming, sometimes expensive, and runs the risk of being turned down by the rights holder. Invoking the fair use defense is an appealing option – if it’s legal.

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Facelifts, Celebrities, and Copyrights

Celebrity-focused websites are wildly popular. Websites are incredible vacuum cleaners of content. Photographs are easy to copy and publish without authorization. You get the picture: photographs are easy to steal. Photographers are truly challenged in making money from the licensing of their images because of this combination of forces.

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Can a Photographer Own a Copyright on a Scene in the News and History?

Can a photograph that becomes linked with history or news be protected from imitation? The First Circuit Appeals says that the answer is “no”. The image of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, better known as Clark Rockefeller, with his daughter emerging from a Boston church on Palm Sunday became a famous photograph.

The story of the man who in effect abducted his own daughter in violation of divorce terms was a story made for a Lifetime made-for television movie. When Sony Pictures Television produced the program, “Who Is Clark Rockefeller” it reenacted the scene at the church using the actors in the program.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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