Can Animals Own A Copyright?

My kids introduced me to Bini the Bunny this past week. For those who do not know, Bini is a rambunctious bunny rabbit whose owner films his exploits and posts them to youtube.com. One of the videos in particular caught my attention:

That is a really cool painting Bini has made in this video! But the copyright lawyer in me says “Who owns the copyright to that painting”? It would be a great bar exam hypothetical. Ordinarily the artist is the first copyright holder and has the exclusive right to distribute, display, copy, and perform the work.

But in Bini’s case the issue is really whether Bini, as a rabbit, can own a copyright. I am sure many animal rights activists believe that he should. This issue is not without precedent. By now I know nearly everyone has heard of Naruto, the macaque, who managed to take a selfie using a camera set up on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Monkey See, Monkey Sue

Once the photographer realized what he had, he applied for and was granted a copyright by the British government. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), sued the photographer in the U.S. arguing that the copyright was owned by Naruto. PETA graciously offered to administer the copyright for Natuto. But a federal judge was not convinced. The suit was dismissed with the judge declaring that Congress needs to act if it wants to extend copyright ownership to animals.

So Bini and his owner are probably out of luck on the copyright ownership of the painting itself. Of course the video made by his owner is a different story. Since no one owns the copyright to the painting, he is free to make videos or take pictures that feature the painting. So maybe there is come sweet green ‘cabbage’ waiting for Bini and his owner after all!