Copyright law may not come across as the most exhilarating topic (although searching for old copyright registrations is more exciting than you’d think), but many copyright cases make pretty bizarre headlines. Read about the infringement claim that J.K. Rowling stole the word “muggle” or the copyright dispute over the Mike Tyson-style tattoo in The Hangover Part II, and you’ll begin to unearth some outlandish questions raised by copyright cases.
One of the copyright issues I find most interesting is the basic question of who/what can hold copyright for works they’ve created. Of course an adult human can hold copyright, but can children hold copyright? How does copyright law apply to works created by animals, or even art created by artificial intelligence?
Can children hold copyright?
Short answer, according to Copyright.gov: Yes in the US.
Minors may claim copyright, and the Copyright Office issues registrations to minors, but state laws may regulate the business dealings involving copyrights owned by minors. For information on relevant state laws, consult an attorney.
Kristin Keller at Noodle.com describes potential copyright issues that may arise at schools “when schools have the potential to profit from student-produced work, when schools prohibit students from profiting from their own work, or when the rights of other students may be infringed upon when student work is reproduced.”
Can animals hold copyright?
Now we start to get into weirder territory about whether non-humans can hold copyright. The most well-known case about animal copyright ownership is probably the monkey selfie case filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) back in 2015, where “Judge William H. Orrick dismissed the claim on the grounds that the Copyright Act does not authorize vesting copyright ownership in nonhumans.” PETA appealed the ruling but later dropped the appeal after a settlement with the human photographer who had originally posted the monkey selfie.
The Copyright Office clarified in September 2017 that it will “not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants. Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings, although the Office
may register a work where the application or the deposit copy(ies) state that the work was inspired by a divine spirit.”
So in short, it seems like animals can’t hold copyrights in the US. (Neither can ghosts.)
Can artificial intelligence hold copyright?
WIPO Magazine recently published a fascinating article by Andres Guadamuz, examining how copyright law may apply to artistic works created by artificial intelligence. Guadamuz explains:
There are two ways in which copyright law can deal with works where human interaction is minimal or non-existent. It can either deny copyright protection for works that have been generated by a computer or it can attribute authorship of such works to the creator of the program.
It seems, at least for now (until the robot uprising occurs) that artificial intelligence can’t hold copyright.
So to sum it up:
What can currently hold copyright: Human adults and children
What can’t hold copyright: animals, plants, ghosts, robots