monkey selfie
One of the selfies taken by Naruto the monkey in 2011Court exhibit provided by PETA

A US court has ruled a monkey who took a series of now-famous selfie photographs cannot be declared the legal copyright owner. Judge William Orrick said that while Congress and the president can extend the protection of law to species other than humans, this was not the case for the Copyright Act.

The ruling came after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit last year asking the US federal court in San Francisco to declare Naruto – a six-year-old male macaque living in Indonesia – the legal owner of selfies he took in 2011.

The monkey had picked up a camera owned by British wildlife photographer David Slater and began snapping away. The photographs were shared across the world after they were published.

Slater became locked in a heated row over who owned the copyright to the photographs after Wikimedia began distributing the pictures free of charge. The company, owned by Wikipedia, argued nobody owned the rights to them because the photos were taken by an animal. This was disputed by Slater, who accused Wikimedia of damaging his livelihood.

But PETA hoped a US court would instead declare Naruto the legal copyright owner so it could administer proceeds derived from the photographs to help the animal.

A statement issued before the group appeared in court on 6 January argued: "The US Copyright Act grants copyright ownership of a 'selfie' to the 'author' of the photograph, and there's nothing in the law limiting such ownership on the basis of species.

"Naruto has been accustomed to cameras throughout his life, saw himself in the reflection of the lens, made the connection between pressing the shutter and the change in his reflection and posed for the pictures he took."

Slater's lawyers argued the photographer had set up the photographs by "building a trustful, friendly relationship" with the macaque, according to The Telegraph. They also said he had positioned the camera and modified its settings before the pictures were taken.

But Judge Orrick said: "While Congress and the president can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans, there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act.

"I just don't see that it could go as broadly as beyond humans."

Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, said the organisation would continue fighting for the monkey's rights. He said: "Despite this setback, legal history was made today because we argued to a federal court why Naruto should be the owner of the copyright rather than been seen as a piece of property himself."