About

Peat Coring in Belize

Public domain image (U.S. Geological Survey)

I’m a scientist who has discovered the value of using video to show how I conduct research, to illustrate my methods, and to explain science concepts. I’ve spent the last forty years conducting research and using traditional outlets to report my work: technical reports, journal articles, book chapters, and conference presentations. These activities were necessary for building a science career, but the products were seen by only a few scientists and students interested in the specific topic of my research.

About ten years ago, I began noticing that there were lots of videos about scientific topics on YouTube and similar sites created by non-scientists—some good and some not so good.  The second thing I noticed was that many of these videos—even the silly, inaccurate, poorly produced ones—had been viewed by, in some cases, millions of people. By comparison, my journal articles had been read by a handful of people. I also noticed that scientific journals were creating videos and podcasts to supplement written articles and were asking authors to submit their own videos to illustrate their work. I also saw that a few scientists and students were starting science blogs in which they talked informally about a science topic, and some included videos to illustrate the concepts they were blogging about.

USGS

Public domain image (U.S. Geological Survey)

And it occurred to me that things were changing rapidly in science communication, but many scientists were not keeping up with these changes. At the same time, I was being told by the government agency I worked for that in addition to technical publications, I should be providing more science information to non-scientists. My first reaction was that I didn’t have time to do outreach and also meet my scientific goals. I also didn’t have a clue about making videos or setting up a blog.

But then I realized that by becoming more proficient in science communication, particularly with multimedia tools, that I would be in a position to share my research more broadly, raise my online profile, and keep up with the changes in electronic publishing and reader expectations for media-rich content. I saw that to be competitive in the future, a scientist would need not only new skills in multimedia but a new attitude toward science communication.

In 2008 I decided to explore video as a means of sharing my scientific knowledge with a global audience. I began filming my scientific fieldwork and, after learning the basics of movie-editing, started using that footage to produce videos about my research and that of colleagues. computerscreen_klmckee

After some trial and error, I was able to publish, through my science agency, a series of science videos. I began getting lots of feedback from viewers and saw that my videos were being linked to by various science organizations and individuals.

In 2012, I set up this website (and a video channel) in which I could more easily share my video-making experiences and insights with other scientists and students. To date, I’ve produced eight peer-reviewed science videos and over 100 video tutorials showing how to plan, shoot, and edit a video to deliver a science message, as well as reviews of equipment. In 2013, I published an eBook, The Scientist Videographer, which is an interactive guidebook to videography for scientists. In 2014, I began teaching video-making workshops and webinars for colleagues and students. Through these activities, I hope to encourage other scientists and students to use video to share their knowledge with the world.

—Karen McKee, Ph.D.

Brief Biography:

Dr. Karen L. McKee is a Scientist Emeritus (retired) with a U.S. science agency and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University. She received both a master’s degree and doctorate in botany and conducted research in the field of wetland plant ecology for forty years. While working for the U.S. government, she studied the effects of elevated CO2, sea-level rise, and hurricanes on wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta (Louisiana, USA) as well as in other wetlands around the world. Her work has been published in over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. Dr. McKee also has produced several peer-reviewed videos that describe her research and other topics of general interest such as climate change and large river deltas. She authored the book, The Scientist Videographer, which promotes science communication by teaching scientists and students how to use video to tell their science stories. In addition, she is co-founder and trustee of a non-profit organization, The Wetland Foundation, which provides travel grants to students in wetland science to attend conferences and conduct field studies.

For more details, see Other Science Contributions

 

Recent Posts

Can a Monkey Claim Copyright?

A few years ago, a crested black macaque named Naruto apparently took a selfie using a wildlife photographer’s camera. The photographer, David Slater, wishing to get better close-up photos of a group of macaques in Indonesia, set up his camera on a tripod and attached a cable and button that when pressed would trigger the camera shutter. He hoped that the monkeys would be curious enough to move closer to the camera, stare at their reflection in the lens, and press the button.

In fact, the macaques were quite cooperative, especially Naruto, who snapped several selfies. One of the photos was particularly eye catching—mainly because of the self-aware and somewhat goofy expression on Naruto’s face. Slater sent the photo along with some others to his agent who shared them with various news outlets. The photo went viral.

Then something really crazy happened.

Wikipedia Claims Monkey Image Is in the Public Domain

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, used the photo of Naruto grinning at the camera, to illustrate an article about the Celebes crested macaque (aka crested black macaque). However, Slater is not attributed as the creator and copyright holder. Instead, the description of the photo on Wikimedia says, “Self-portrait of a female Celebes crested macaque (Macaca nigra) in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, who had picked up photographer David Slater’s camera and photographed herself with it.” Wikipedia claims that the image is in the public domain because the macaque who snapped the photo is a “non-human” creator”, i.e., not a legal person.

Slater, on the other hand, believes that the photo resulted from his creative choices (choosing the macaque group, setting the camera on a tripod, adjusting the camera settings for the desired image, adding the remote trigger, etc.), thus making him the rightful copyright holder. Some legal experts (in the UK where Slater lives) think that his actions are more important than “the mere physical act of pressing a button” in deciding who has copyright ownership.

In spite of Slater’s objections, Wikipedia refused to take down the photo of Naruto. I’m not reproducing the photo of Naruto here because I think Slater is the rightful owner, and I don’t have permission to use it (I tried to contact him to get permission, but never got a reply). You can see the image at Slater’s website.

But there’s more to the Naruto story.

PETA Sues for Copyright Infringement

In 2015, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) entered the fray by suing Slater for copyright infringement in a California court on behalf of Naruto. PETA’s claim was that the photo “resulted from a series of purposeful and voluntary actions by Naruto, unaided by Mr. Slater, resulting in original works of authorship not by Mr. Slater, but by Naruto”. PETA was saying, in other words, that Slater’s use of the photo of Naruto, on his website and in a book, infringed on the rights of the monkey.

The judge in the case dismissed the suit because animals do not have standing in a court of law and thus cannot sue for copyright infringement. PETA appealed. During the appeal proceedings, Slater and PETA reached a settlement (exact terms unknown). In a joint statement PETA and David Slater apparently agreed that nonhuman animals have rights. Both are concerned about animal rights, and the so-called monkey selfie potentially advances the argument that animals have certain rights. According to the PETA website, Slater agreed to donate 25% of revenues from the photo to the sanctuary where Naruto lives. On David Slater’s website, the amount stated is 10% going towards a “monkey conservation project in Sulawesi”.

In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rendered an opinion upholding the previous court’s decision to dismiss claims brought by a monkey of copyright infringement. The opinion blasted PETA saying, “PETA’s real motivation in this case was to advance its own interests, not Naruto’s …”.

Works that Lack Human Authorship

What does the law say about what creative works may be copyrighted and who may claim copyright?

In the U.S., copyright law (see The Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices: Chapter 300) says that to qualify as a work of authorship, it must be created by a human. In fact, the Compendium specifically mentions the monkey example in its description of “works that lack human authorship”:

“… the Copyright Act protects ‘original works of authorship.’ 17 U.S.C. § 102(a) (emphasis added). To qualify as a work of ‘authorship’ a work must be created by a human being … Works that do not satisfy this requirement are not copyrightable.

“The Office 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.

“Examples:

  • A photograph taken by a monkey.
  • A mural painted by an elephant.
  • A claim based on the appearance of actual animal skin.
  • A claim based on driftwood that has been shaped and smoothed by the ocean.
  • A claim based on cut marks, defects, and other qualities found in natural stone.
  • An application for a song naming the Holy Spirit as the author of the work.

“Similarly, the Office will not register works produced by a machine or mere mechanical process that operates randomly or automatically without any creative input or intervention from a human author.”

So in the U.S. at least, an animal cannot be the author of a creative work, and the PETA suit would never have succeeded because the U.S. Copyright Office had already said that animals cannot hold copyright. But what about Wikipedia’s claim that the photo of Naruto is in the public domain?

You may be thinking at this point about situations in which the scientist videographer may find themselves challenged as the creator and copyright owner of a video. For example, wildlife camera traps are triggered by the movements of animals. Could someone claim that the resultant photo or video is the creative property of the animal or is in the public domain because the animal triggered the photo or video?

According to the U.S. copyright law, an author is “the creator of the original expression in a work” (unless the author transfers the copyright to another person or entity such as a publisher). To be copyrightable, the work must be created by a human and also reflect a “degree of creativity”, among other requirements. Thus, the monkey, a non-human, is automatically disqualified as the creator of a copyrightable work. But can the monkey be the creator of the image, i.e., the photographer?

Maybe.

The Wikipedia description of the image of Naruto says that the macaque “picked up photographer David Slater’s camera and photographed herself “. However, Slater’s description (in an interview on This American Life, Episode 631) has the camera set up on a tripod with a remote shutter trigger attached by a cable. The macaques were attracted to the trigger button, picking it up and putting it in their mouths, and eventually pressing it. The sounds of the shutter seemed to further attract the macaques attention and caused them to look into the camera lens. In other words, the monkey did not pick up the camera, look into the lens, smile, and snap the picture. Also, in this case, it’s clear that a human created the conditions whereby the photo was taken. So at a minimum, a human was involved in capturing the image and, I would argue, was the participant wholly responsible for the creative aspect of the photo. The macaque merely participated by mugging for the camera and pressing the button that triggered the shot.

Part of the confusion surrounding the monkey photo is because of its designation as a “selfie”, which implies that the monkey knew it was snapping a photo of itself. Although the macaques may have recognized themselves in their reflections in the camera lens, they were likely unaware that their image was being recorded or that pressing a button caused that recording. That is true of any audiovisual recording of nonhuman animals. A good example is a photo or video captured by a camera trap in which a motion-activated camera is positioned by a human to capture images of animals in a particular location during a particular period of time. The movement of animals triggers the camera to record images, but the animals are unaware of what’s happening. Human action is also necessary to download and process the resultant film. No one could reasonably argue that animals recorded in this way were the photographers. Wikipedia seems to agree, since their entry on camera traps features several examples of camera trap images, all of which are attributed to human photographers who were not even present at the time the images were recorded.

The images captured by Slater’s camera setup in Indonesia are analogous to images taken with camera traps. The macaques triggered Slater’s camera by playing with the button he installed but were unaware that their actions caused a visual recording. And unlike the situation with camera traps, Slater was present and interacting with the subjects of his photography as well as with the camera (to adjust settings).

The question that remains unanswered is whether actions by a human photographer to plan and set up a shot legally qualifies them as the author of the resultant photo, even if the recording is triggered by the animal’s actions.

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