You may have heard about the dispute of copyright ownership over a selfie taken by a macaque in 2011. The wildlife photographer who owned the camera claimed ownership when a website published the photo without his permission.
Under U.S. law, copyright in a photograph is the property of the person who presses the shutter on the camera — not the person who owns the camera, and not even the person in the photo. Unless a written agreement exists that makes the photo a work made for hire, any person you ask to take your picture with your camera owns the copyright in that photo — not you. How many of us have those photos on our cameras or cell phones? Selfies appear to be a better idea. But do monkeys own copyrights?
The answer is: “No, they do not.” The U.S. Copyright Office issued a document in December 2014, reiterating that it will not register works produced by nature, animals or plants. According to the Copyright Office, a photograph taken by a monkey is unprotected intellectual property. The monkey selfie falls into the public domain and may be used by anyone without permission.
So maybe the answer to owning those vacation photos of yourself is a drone? The Copyright Act states that copyright protection subsists in original works of authorship that are made either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Copyright in photos from a drone operated directly by a human most likely are owned by that human — but make sure you do not preprogram the drone to operate without a human.