Like that monkey, but more complicated: Apple Watch and photo copyright

Do you remember that little kerfuffle a while ago about who owned the copyright to a photo snapped by a black macaque?

As my friend and colleague Mark Johnson wrote, the US Copyright Office ruled that only humans can own a copyright. Tough luck for monkeys, I suppose, but then they haven’t taken the initiative to get their own copyright office together, either…

So why am I rambling about monkeys and cameras?

I recently got an Apple Watch, and one of the we’re-living-in-the-future features is that the Apple Watch can serve as both a remote monitor for your iPhone camera (showing what you the iPhone camera sees in real time) and a remote trigger (letting you trip the shutter on your iPhone camera, including with a 3-second delay) — check out a demo here.

Everything’s pretty cut and dried if you set the camera somewhere (on a flat surface, a tripod, etc.) and press the shutter button yourself, but what if, in one of the commonly proposed use cases, you hand the phone to someone else, say to take a picture of your family on vacation, but then you trigger the shutter from your watch? Who owns the copyright to the image then?

On the surface, it’s you: it’s your equipment (not really relevant for copyright claims, but feels important, amiright?) and you control the moment when the shot is taken (much more important for copyright). But, the other person holding the camera is responsible for its composition (even if you’re offering them verbal guidance of the “a little to the left” variety) — that counts for something, right?

I’d love to hear from anyone familiar with photo copyright, either in the comments on this article or via Twitter: am I making this unnecessarily complicated, or is this in fact a thing worth discussing? Let me know, and I’ll update this piece accordingly.


John Weatherford teaches in the New Media Institute in the Grady College at the University of Georgia. Follow him on Twitter, and if you dig this piece, recommend it below!