Pets have become a staple of content and at times a revenue generator for their owners (and sponsors). The question is, does a pet have rights in Social Media law? Can the pet financially benefit? What are Pet-nups? And what are the Family law implications?
Despite Britain’s love of pets, pets do not have the same legal standing as a person or company. Pets are chattels - in the eyes of the law pets are objects having the same legal standing as a chair, a mobile phone or shoes: an item to be owned (and exploited on social media at the owner’s whim).
This seems oddly callous for a nation which is thought to love their pets more than (some of) their family members. There are laws against animal cruelty (Animal Welfare Act 2006), but animals do not have any rights in IP or Contract Law (which is the backbone of Social Media Law). Animals are not mentioned in the Copyright Design and Patents Act 1986 and they lack the legal capacity to enter into contracts (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/06/monkey-selfie-case-animal-photo-copyright and https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2018/01/article_0007.html).
Social Media Law
Under English Law, the owner of a pet has every right to use/exploit it. The social media account which shows a cute dog or cat would usually have been created by the owner and the IP of content will usually belong to the owner as well, especially if they are taking the picture or videos of their furry friends.
In cases where a pet is owned by a couple, one or both members of that couple will be taking the photos and videos (the content) of the pet and editing it accordingly they would own the IP of the photos and videos. Additionally, they would own the social media account which holds/allows for the exploitation of the content. If a married couple then were to split up, the family court would need to take a view on how to deal with these assets (the pet, the social media account and the IP).
The recent rise of pet-related disputes in divorce and civil proceedings demonstrate the highly emotive and personal nature of pet ownership but also the sad possessive quality of the dispute (X v IY (Financial Remedies: Unmatched Contributions)  EWHC 3053,  2 FLR 449); albeit this case doesn’t deal with a pet that can produce or is a producer of income for one or both members of the couple.
Clearly pets and pet related issues are matters which could and should be considered in pre-nuptial agreements or cohabitation agreements for couples. A “Pet-Nup” could also deal with the IP issues and social media ownership considered above; if the humans involved think that their pet has star quality.
Within the context of family or divorce proceedings, again pets do not have any special status as separate to other chattels meaning that family courts do not recognise any emotional attachments that parties may form with family pets.
The family court can order a transfer of ownership of a pet, the same way it would for property. This can include provisions for the maintenance of pets when calculating income needs of a party to include vet bills, vaccines, food costs, grooming costs and dog-walking bills can be ordered to be paid by one party to the party that retains the family pet.
For unmarried couples, the court may award ‘ownership’ to the pet to the person who paid for it or under whose name it is registered with the vet. However, there will be no maintenance orders for a party to contribute to the costs of the pet, even if they have expensive tastes.
The court views financial matters and child arrangements as more important than pets and give priority to them, unfortunately disregarding the trauma and emotional impact that losing a beloved pet can have following a separation.
There are times where the custody/ownership of the pet can be a major issue. For example, if the parties jointly own a racehorse, racing greyhound or a dog that is on show at CRUFTS or even animals that are paid for their appearance in TV or film. If a pet is the key to the livelihood of a party, i.e. the pet generates an income for that owner will not want to take that income stream away from the reliant party. However if neither party is dependent on the income generated from the pet, the issue of ownership could become more difficult to resolve. For example, the parties may, as a hobby, attend CRUFTS, or pay a trainer to ensure that a horse or greyhound is in race condition. The court would need to make a fair judgment about the ownership of the pet in the context of the divorce as a whole.
A court will use Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to consider what a ‘fair’ settlement is and this includes the following;
(a)the income, earning capacity, property and other financial resources which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future, including in the case of earning capacity any increase in that capacity which it would in the opinion of the court be reasonable to expect a party to the marriage to take steps to acquire;
(b)the financial needs, obligations and responsibilities which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future;
As the wording suggests, the obligations and responsibilities of the parties are also considered and not just income (or loss) that the pet generates.
This is an area of law that will no doubt generate continued controversy as we continue to interact with our pets in new ways and treat them more as members of the family than as objects.
There is a clear disconnect between our emotional connection to our pets and their treatment by the law. There is likely to be increasing pressure for the law to catch up and start treating pets with more compassion.
Published 21st June 2022