Panda In A Monkey Selfie Copyright Situation? Zoo Sells Paintings Created By Panda Bear


A Vienna zoo has made headlines around the world by offering for sale paintings created by their resident panda. For approximately $500 a piece, enthusiastic art aficionados may purchase abstract paintings created by panda bear Yang Yang, an eighteen year old panda at the Vienna Schoenbrunn Zoo.

Who Owns the Copyright to Paintings Created by Panda Bear?

With some likening Yang Yang’s art to Jackson Pollock pieces, the zoo’s profit off of Yang Yang’s art inevitably raises the specter of the recent copyright law/intellectual property question—who really owns the copyright to the art pieces created by panda bear Yang Yang? Yang Yang clearly could not create the art without the assistance of zookeepers whom provide the panda with the paintbrush, canvas, and easel, which often comes in the form of the zookeepers themselves.  Yet, undeniably, it is still Yang Yang that actually wields the paintbrush and creates the work.  As such, the ownership of the copyright becomes muddled because the U.S. Copyright Act does not provide finite guidance on whether ownership of a work may extend to animals.

PETA Took Photographer to Court on Behalf of Monkey for Use of Monkey Selfie

In 2017, this question was put to the test when copyright ownership was argued in court over the infamous “monkey selfie” which refers to a drawn-out court battle between photographer David Slater and animal rights activist group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”).  In this case, both sides were claiming rights to a selfie-style photograph that had been taken by Naruto, an Indonesian macaque.

Slater argued that because he set up the entire encounter between the macaque and the camera, he was entitled to the copyright of the photograph even though the macaque itself was responsible for the actual taking of the photograph.  PETA, on the other hand, argued that they represented the macaque’s interests in the work because the animal deserved representation and because PETA believed that Slater did not have right to claim ownership of the copyright when it was the macaque’s hand that took the photograph and not Slater’s.

Paintings Created by Panda Bear Create Similar Copyright Question to Monkey Selfie

As such, one can see similar issues arising here when Yang Yang is the actual artist of the paintings being sold, but it is the Vienna zoo that is profiting from the sale of the artwork. In the end, because Slater and PETA ended up settling and, as a result of the settlement, both parties requested that the courts throw out a lower decision that ruled that the Copyright Act did not extend to animals, it still remains to be seen whether or not courts will rule similarly if the question is again put to the test.  As such, it will be interesting to see whether PETA decides to intercede again in the name of animal rights, especially if it must test such questions outside of U.S. jurisdiction.

For additional discussion of the surprising number of legal issues involving copyright questions involving animals, see our articles:

For more information on this topic, please visit our copyright protection service page, which is part of our Software & Copyrights Practice.

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