He looked at the zeros in his bank account and wanted to cry. It was no exaggeration to say that they could lose everything.
PETA had the nerve to go to court and try to drown him in legal fees. It was insane. This “charitable” organization was going to utterly ruin a small family over a few photos.
It had taken years for David Slater to save up for his trip to Sulawesi, Indonesia.
But as he trudged through the sweltering heat and lugged his 40-pound backpack full of rations and expensive photography equipment, he felt nothing but pure joy. He was on a mission.
The goal was to locate the very endangered Crested Black Macaque.
David cringed at the thought that the locals still hunted them down and roasted them for dinner. He was desperate to raise awareness to these majestic creatures. However, he had no idea his plans were about to be hijacked.
David wiped his brow and nodded in satisfaction on the current set up. The best camera, lens, angle, and time of day – it was perfect.
He had already spent a few days letting the primate tribe get to know him. Now, all he had to do was sit with his remote and press the button. One monkey decided otherwise.
It didn’t take long for the mechanical whirrs and clicks to get the Macaque’s attention.
David chuckled as it snatched the remote and eagerly pressed the button over and over. Suddenly, he had a brilliant idea. It was the perfect awareness campaign.
Monkey selfies! Aside from the thousands of snapshots David took, the let the primates fill up several memory cards with their wild, endearing antics.
His mind was filled with thrilling possibilities. This was his chance to really make people see what was going on. Sadly, things would turn sour very quickly.
It was Wikipedia of all places.
He knew that all kinds of images ended up there all the time, but people were stealing his art and using it for their own purposes. It was unbelievable! He sent a fuming letter to their legal department. Their answer made his eyes bulge and pop out of his head.
“Since the monkey was the one to take the photo”, and not David, Wikipedia said “he didn’t have rights to the photo “owned” the images and should be entitled to the money.
And PETA, of course, should “manage those funds on behalf of their client.”
This was the start of a legal battle David never could have imagined.
This wasn’t some random set of photos he was giving up. This was his job, his livelihood! He wasn’t asking for a fortune, just a fair wage for his work. He had funded the trip after all. And it wasn’t even him that was suffering the most.
David might have been an award-winning photographer, but he didn’t make millions.
His salary went to pay the mortgage on their modest home, single car, and saving for their daughter’s future education. The entire ordeal was literally taking food off their table. It got so bad that he couldn’t afford the flights to go to his own legal hearings.
All he could do was fight through the day and feel the weight of the situation crash down on him.
His wife had to keep the mortgage going. Weeks changed to long months with the car sitting in the driveway, unused because they couldn’t afford the repairs. Opening any mail or email was unbearable.
The lawyer’s bills made him want to cry. PETA’s relentless harassment and cut-throat attitude filled his life with unending depression.
Why were they doing this to him?! Things go so bad, he started to consider ending his career altogether. Was there light at the end of this pitch-black tunnel?
It was two gruelling years and an insurmountable pile of debt.
But the courts finally ruled that an animal couldn’t own a copyright. PETA tried to appeal, but the end result was the same – plus a very satisfying comment from the judge.
The judge said the animal group’s case was entirely self-serving and had nothing to do with animal protection.
David couldn’t help but smile. It was an arrangement he could live with – he would gain ownership, but some proceeds would go to whatever animal charity David wanted. One final, amazing thing happened.
The fame that came from the “monkey selfies” brought flocks of tourists to the preserves to see the rare primates.
The locals also saw the value of tourism and stopped eating them. It was the kind of awareness and measurable change David could only have dreamed of. And now, after years of turmoil, it was finally true.