Elephants, monkeys, and the Holy Spirit can't claim copyright in the US

A new paper from the US Copyright Office has been published to clarify what can and what cannot be copyrighted. Novels written by human beings are covered. What's not covered? Photos taken by monkeys, murals painted by elephants, and songs written by ghosts.

Things that can be copyrighted:

  • Photos taken by a human
  • Songs written by a human
  • Novels written by a human

Things that can't be copyrighted:

  • Photos taken by monkeys
  • Songs written by the Holy Ghost
  • Lists of ingredients for a product
  • Paintings done by elephants
  • Driftwood just pulled out of the damn river
  • Animal skin that hasn't been altered
  • An exact reproduction of a painting
  • A list of an author's stories
  • Public domain photos with slogans plastered on top
  • A sound recording of a single note
  • Photos of an arrangement of food on a plate that hasn't shown at least a "minimal level of creativity"
  • Touched up and restored photos that have been damaged
  • Medical imaging produced by X-rays and MRI scans

Now, what's the difference between a photo taken by a human and an X-ray taken by a human? And what's considered a "minimal level of creativity" in arranging food so that I can claim some punk Instagrammer is stealing my idea of stacking three bananas on top of each other? Those are all good questions, and I guess that's the reason we have lawyers in this bright beautiful world of ours.

Recently, Wikimedia declared that they didn't believe a monkey could hold the copyright on a photo. But what is and is not subject to copyright is a bit like taxes: They are whatever the government says they are. And then the lawyers duke it out over what the government says they are.

Intellectual property laws are not like other property laws. When you "steal" a digital photo, the original author of that photo hasn't lost the original copy of the photo. And so copyright is a government granted monopoly for creators to ensure certain protections for their work.

But even when the US Copyright Office tries to clarify what is and is not subject to copyright, intellectual property law is still messy and open to interpretation. If you're a monkey looking to sell your most recent series of banana photos taken by X-ray, you better get yourself a good lawyer.

Image: Look Khob, a four-year old "elephant artist" in Bangkok in 1998 via AP


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