by Justice William W. Bedsworth
People have started asking me when I’m going to retire. Apparently my advancing age has raised hopes in the legal community.
Sometimes the question is asked in just that form, “When are you going to retire?” This is a welcome condensation of the entire thought, which is, “When are you going to retire, for crying out loud?” I can almost see the questioner’s foot tapping.
Sometimes it’s asked more artfully: “Have you given any thought to what you’re going to do when you retire?” This kindly suggests that while retirement is still hidden beyond the horizon, it is nonetheless close enough to begin planning for—much as one starts planning for their Little Leaguer’s college tuition costs.
My friends—who can’t figure out why in hell I’m still working at age seventy—generally phrase it most bluntly: “What are you gonna do when you hang ‘em up?”
My answer to that question has generally been, “Nothing.”
I’ll write a little, play some golf, teach bad habits to the grandkids, try to live down my reputation . . . .
But, as Judge Frank Firmat likes to remind me, the Spanish word for retirement is jubilacion. I plan to spend a lot of time just sitting around and being jubilant about the unconscionably privileged life I’ve been allowed to live.
At least that is what I’ve been planning. Now I’m not so sure. Recent events have suggested there is a group out there that might need my help.1
I’m thinking of opening a monkey law office specializing in macaque discrimination.
I’ll pause here so you can absorb the staggering ramifications of that statement.2
I’m sure you’re all aware of Naruto v. Slater, in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals3 heard argument on whether Naruto, a crested macaque who lives in an Indonesian jungle, could qualify for protection under the Copyright Act, or whether her monkeyness barred her access to the courts—even if she did snap the shutter on a remarkably charming self-portrait.
Well, the case settled. Dang. Now we will never know how the Ninth Circuit would have answered this question.
This has disappointed a lot of people. There was hope in some quarters that the court’s ruling would shed some light on the rights of the MGM lion, the Taco Bell chihuahua, and dozens of piano-playing cats who are pioneering intellectual property rights all over the internet. It had even been suggested it might help when artificial intelligence programs start writing sequels to War and Peace and producing new symphonies.
I was not one of those people. I was prepared to go forward into my golden years confident that I already knew the answer to the monkey copyright question and thereby some of the others the bigger-thinkers-than-I were struggling with. I think the guidance was provided two decades ago.
In 1997, the Ninth Circuit dealt with a closely analogous issue: the intellectual property rights of gods and angels.4 And in that case, Urantia Foundation v. Maaherra, 114 F.3d 955, the Ninth Circuit limited copyright to humans.
In Urantia Foundation, the court was confronted with an infringement suit pertaining to a collection of divine revelations received by the plaintiffs from “the Divine Counselor,” “the Chief of the Archangels of Nebadon,” and the “Chief of the Corps of Super-Universe Personalities.” The defense for using that material was that the scriptures in question were not written by humans, but by “non-human spiritual beings” and were therefore not entitled to copyright protection.
The Ninth Circuit agreed, holding that “some element of human creativity must have occurred in order for the Book to be copyrightable.” (Id. at 958). Granted, the court’s holding was only that other-worldly beings were not eligible for copyright protection, and macaques are distinctly this-worldly, but I don’t think you can distinguish the two cases on that basis unless you think the Ninth Circuit is more willing to risk the wrath of God than the wrath of PETA.
I thought Urantia Foundation would be the controlling—or at least directing—precedent.5 I felt bad for Naruto the Macaque, but I’ve felt bad for lots of parties I had to rule against. Comes with the territory.
Now, however, I read in the Wall Street Journal that the War on Macaques has taken on dimensions unseen since this nation’s War on Christmas—which I somehow missed, but heard about a lot.
Bill Shatz, a Los Angeles appellate lawyer who has spent much of his career trying to get me to pay closer attention to things he thinks I’ve overlooked, sent me a clipping from the Journal.6 It says “packs of marauding monkeys”—macaques, again—are overrunning the Naval Base at Sattahip, Thailand.”
According to the WSJ, “Squeezed out of the nearby jungles by new housing developments and tourist resorts, the long-tailed macaques have chewed through telephone cables, knocking the entire base off the grid. They drag rocks onto roads to slow down cars and trucks so they can jump aboard and rummage for food.”
Wow! These are some pretty dang smart monkeys. We’re not talking Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, here; we’re talking Rocket J. Squirrel. I’m sure someone is already working on setting the next Planet of the Apes prequel in Thailand and casting it with macaques.
And the reason I’m so sure of this is the method the government of Thailand has hit upon for dealing with this problem. Pause here for a moment and consider how you would try to solve this problem. Pretend you’re the government of Thailand,7 and ask yourself what steps you would take to ameliorate this scourge.
But don’t think about it for long because I absolutely guarantee you that you aren’t going to come up with the solution Thailand has chosen.
Are you ready?8
Quoting again from the WSJ, which is usually a reliable source if there are no banks or brokerage houses involved, “The sailors are fighting back. Their weapon of choice? Vasectomies.”
Honest. The government of Thailand is going to pony up for vasectomies to limit the macaque population. There will be a line item in the Thai budget for “monkey vasectomies.”
“Cmdr. Suranart (the base commander) is implementing the new vasectomy strategy to defend the navy from attack without hurting their furry neighbors.” The only problem is catching the macaques, who seem to have figured out that nothing good happens when they go into the cages set out for them—no matter how alluring the bait.
But the pattern is unmistakable: macaques are stripped of their constitutional rights in America and subjected to forced vasectomies in Thailand. Clearly there is a world-wide War on Macaques going on, and I think I hear my retirement vocation calling me.
All I need to do is move to a state where MONKEYLAW will fit on my license plate and convince the macaques they’re better off with me than they would be going pro per.
Given the fact they’re smart enough to block roads with rocks and refuse to go into cages surrounded by people in white lab coats, that could be a hard sell.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.