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One of the more interesting – and as yet largely untested – questions in the copyright world is who owns the copyright of works of art created by animals, i.e. non-humans. At first glance, this seems like a rather silly question. But in recent years, paintings and other artwork made by animals (mostly monkeys and elephants) have been sold for surprisingly large amounts. And the work of animals is often deemed to be on par with some established human artists.
A classic case occurred in 1964 when a newspaper in Sweden (Göteborgs-Tidningen) hung some paintings by Peter, a four-year-old chimp from the zoo, in a gallery claiming they were the work of famous artist Pierre Brassau. The works immediately drew critical acclaim, with one critic writing: “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”
So who owns a copyright for a work created by an animal? Some countries account for this problem by explicitly stating in that only human beings can be the owners of copyright. In most civil law countries, only a natural person can qualify as an author. But many countries merely refer only to the “creator” or the “author” of a work. Of course, there are specific rules dealing with works made on behalf or at the direction of another. These usually involve an employer-employee relationship (the “work for hire” doctrine). In common law countries, absent an express agreement to the contrary, copyright in works created at the behest of another or in the course of employment initially vests in the employer or the person or entity which is requesting a work be created by someone under their control.
Could this doctrine apply to animals? In other words, is a monkey who creates a painting only doing so under the direction, supervision and control of its owner. If so, in some common law countries, the monkey’s owner could ultimately be the owner of some very valuable intellectual property rights.
It may be only a matter of time before this issue gets resolved. In the meantime, keep training your pets. You never know when you’ll discover the next Leopardo da Vinci.