• Can a monkey have the requisite cognisance to create art? (Creative Commons)Source: Creative Commons
But did it really understand what it was doing?
Shami Sivasubramanian

15 Aug 2016 - 12:40 PM  UPDATED 15 Aug 2016 - 12:44 PM

A case about copyright laws and primate psychology has reopened after PETA appealed a ruling from a San Francisco court.

But this time round, they’re solidifying their stance with expert testimony from a prominent anthropologist, Dr Agustin Fuentes. He is a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

He believes the monkey, named Naruto, was more than capable of creating and authoring art.

“Animals can be the authors of valuable works of art, and there is a market for art created by animals,” Fuentes wrote.

“The photographs at issue in this case are works of art authored by Naruto, the macaque … and the best available research strongly supports the conclusion that Naruto easily satisfies the basic requirements for authorship.”

But can Naruto actually understand the concept of art? Not all experts agree.

Timeline of the selfie saga

In 2011, an Indonesian black macaque named Naruto took a photo with a British wildlife photographer’s unattended equipment.  The result was a series of rather quirky selfies.

The photographer, David Slater, later used one of the photos as the feature pic of his Wildlife Personalities published in 2014. He published the other within the book.

Wikipedia then published a picture of one of the monkey selfies on their site. And when Slater objected, the website claimed the photographer didn’t have rights to the photo since Naruto was the true creator of the photo, and doesn’t have any legal rights of his own.

In 2015, animal rights organisation PETA weighed in to the matter. They claimed the macaque did own the rights to the selfie, and went on to sue photographer Slater on the monkey’s behalf under US jurisdiction. This January, the court ruled on the case, claiming Naruto didn’t not own the right to the photograph as animals are not protected under copyright laws.

However, this month PETA has appealed that ruling.

Can a macaque understand art?

Dr James Bourne, from the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University, studies the neuroscience of primates. He says though some non-primates do have higher levels of cognisance (awareness) than others, he’s sceptical a macaque would be able to understand the gravity of art and what it entails.

“It depends on the species,” says Dr Bourne. “Some can recognise their own reflections. But there are many unanswered questions.”

“They don’t have the same capacity for language we do, because they don’t have that part of the brain we do.  But they do have the capacity to interact with each other, like form a family unit, be protective of their young,” he says.

"What are they trying to achieve? Give the macaque copyright to the image?"

He referred to the matriarchal bonobos who punish males for committing acts of female-directed violence, as an example of this evolutionary ability to interact – a neuroethological characteristic. But it doesn’t necessarily translate to a broader human-like emotional range, he says.

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“I find we as humans like to anthropomorphise animal behaviour to derive meaning that might not be there,” he says, unsure of what PETA’s intention behind reopening the case is.

“What are they trying to achieve? Give the macaque copyright to the image? Well, it certainly won’t have the cognisance to be able to scan any legal documents. “

Given his expertise in primate neurology, Dr Bourne believes the macaque didn't really know what it was doing. But ultimately, he says there isn’t enough research out there to prove macaques or any primate can understand enough in order to consciously make art. 

“Well, I guess it depends on how you define art. There are times I see some art and I think a monkey could do it!” 

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