Creativity vs. Wikipedia

Crested Macaque, Sulawesi. COPYRIGHT David J. Slater

Crested Macaque, Sulawesi. COPYRIGHT David J. Slater

By now, you will all have seen the image. You will probably also have heard the many amusing, often ridiculous, news reports about the “monkey selfie” and how he took this picture of himself, one now seen around the world. What you may not have heard is the darker part of the story, one of the enterprising and creative photographer who is responsible for the creation of this picture, and how Wikipedia has dismissed his claims of authorship.

The picture was taken in 2011, when David Slater visited the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. He was fortunate enough to spend several days in the company of the critically endangered Black Crested Macaque, and took hundreds, if not thousands, of images. In fact, over those few days, he grew quite comfortable with the animals, as they did with him. To try and capture a unique close-up angle, he tried something quite creative (and brave, considering the value of his cameras); he set the camera up on a tripod, adjusted the lighting, composition, depth-of-field, flash settings and focus, and watched to see what the macaques would do.

Not surprisingly, they played with the camera, which was shiny, reflective and made a lot of funny noises. In the end, they also took a lot of pictures, including a few of themselves. This was precisely what Slater hoped would happen, and what he had orchestrated. It is NOT a “selfie.”

After some of the images were published, someone submitted one of the best shots (seen above) to Wikipedia for its page on this macaque species. The trouble is, they posted it as Public Domain, meaning that anyone could use the picture anytime, in any way they liked. Slater, whose income, and substantial conservation work, is based on his photography, asked them to take it down, claiming that he asserted copyright of the image. In the end, Wikimedia refused, saying that since the monkey “took the picture,” Slater could not copyright it—monkeys, as non-humans, cannot own copyright.

This is utter nonsense. Slater had the idea, the vision and the technical ability to set these pictures up—they simply would never have been taken without his creative initiative. What’s more, a photograph today no longer ends with the push of the shutter.There is also a tremendous amount of creative effort that goes into postproduction, including the cropping, rotating, toning and color adjustments of the original RAW images. These efforts, along with the many decisions mentioned above, clearly present a sufficient degree of creative contributions to support Slater’s, or any photographer’s, assertion of copyright.

I shoot rare animals using camera traps, as do many others. I have photographed endangered species I never saw, and that took their own pictures “by accident.” Am I now to expect that those pictures will also be placed in the Public Domain? This may all sound trivial, but rest assured, it is only the latest blow to a field—wildlife photography—that is already under assault from free downloads and uncontrolled “sharing.” My profession for the last 30 years has almost evaporated.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Wikipedia is a wonderful institution. However, it is their stated belief that ALL information, all content, should be utterly free. Quoting their website: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” This sounds like a blow for Freedom—but it is, in fact, a knife in the back of creative people everywhere.