Monkey See, Monkey Sue: Ninth Circuit Finds Naruto Cannot Sue Under Copyright Act

Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirmed dismissal of copyright infringement claims brought on behalf of a macaque monkey, Naruto, against a wildlife photographer. The Court found that Naruto had Constitutional standing to file suit, but that he could not maintain an action under the Copyright Act. Naruto v. Slater, No. 16-15469.

In 2011, Naruto, then a seven-year-old crested macaque living in Indonesia, took several pictures of himself with a camera that had been left unattended by wildlife photographer David Slater.  Slater subsequently published these “monkey selfies” in a book.  In 2015, PETA filed a complaint on Naruto’s behalf alleging copyright infringement, which a district court in California dismissed.

Affirming dismissal, the Ninth Circuit found that PETA did not have standing as “next-friend” of Naruto because animals cannot be represented by “next friends” absent express statutory authorization and PETA had failed to allege that it had a significant relationship with Naruto.  The Court also criticized PETA for seeking dismissal of Naruto’s appeal after PETA entered into a settlement agreement with the photographer following oral argument in the case.  Since the settlement did not include Naruto as a party, the settlement and subsequent motion gave the appearance that Naruto was being used for PETA’s institutional interests, which undermined PETA’s attempt to establish itself as Naruto’s next friend.

Relying on a prior decision of the Ninth Circuit from 2004, Cetacean Community v. Bush however, the court held that Naruto had Constitutional standing on his own to sue.  In Catacean Community, the Ninth Circuit found that the world’s whales, dolphins, and porpoises, had standing to sue through their self-appointed attorney.  The panel in Naruto’s case criticized that earlier decision as “wrongly decided,” but ruled that they were bound by it until the full Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court revisited it.

Ultimately, however, the Court found that the language of the Copyright Act did not authorize animals to file copyright infringement suits.  The Court emphasized that a lawsuit by an animal is only allowable if the statute specifically permits it –  a rule meant to prevent monkey business.

For more information on animal law, intellectual property, constitutional or statutory standing, or the implications of Naruto, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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Supreme Court’s Opinion Reiterates Principle that Patent Holders Bear Burden of Proof in Infringement Actions

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision issued on January 22, 2014, held that the burden of proof in patent infringement actions falls upon the patentee, regardless of whether the patentee is the moving party in the infringement action.

In Medtronic Inc. v. Boston Scientific Corp., Medtronic, Inc., a designer and seller of medical devices, entered into a license agreement with Mirowski Family Ventures, LLC with respect to certain patents held by Mirowski. The license agreement permitted Medtronic to utilize certain patents held by Mirowski in exchange for royalty payments. In 2007, Mirowski provided Medtronic with a notice of infringement alleging that seven new Medtronic products violated two Mirowski patents. Medtronic responded by bringing a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that Medtronic’s products did not infringe Mirowski’s patents and that the patents were invalid.

The District Court held that the burden of proof in a declaratory judgment action falls on the patentee to prove that its patent rights have been infringed upon. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the burden should shift to the moving party because when a patentee is the defendant they are unable to bring an infringement action.

The Supreme Court reversed, specifically noting the extensive case law supporting the patentee’s burden of proof, stating that it was “well established that the burden of proving infringement generally rests upon the patentee”.

In addition, Justice Breyer noted that shifting the burden of proof away from the patentee could create “unnecessary complexity” and cause confusion as to what theory a patentee’s infringement claim lays upon because the patentee is best equipped to state how an alleged infringer has infringed on an existing patent, whereas the alleged infringer would need to “negate every conceivable infringement theory” as part of their proof that they did not violate the patent.

In addition, the Court stated that shifting the burden away from the patentee would move against the basic purpose of the Declaratory Judgment Act. The Court held that were it not for the declaratory judgment procedure, the alleged infringer would be forced to either continue the alleged breach, forcing the patent holder to bring an infringement action, or cease the alleged breach and cure.

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