Does using drones in filmmaking fly with the government?

April 8, 2016
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Drones in filmmaking may be changing the way films are being made, but they’re also raising plenty of legal questions.

Filmmakers can offer audiences a new perspective when they use drones, but these flying machines are the subject of plenty of legal scrutiny. Though certainly helpful in many ways, drones in filmmaking can  however be considered a threat to privacy rights as well as a safety hazard. The federal government has asserted its right to regulate the use of drones through the Federal Aviation Administration, but in some instances has also conceded that filmmakers have the right to use them for shooting.

Drones in filmmaking may be changing the way films are being made, but they're also raising plenty of legal questions.

Basic drone in filmmaking regulations
Any filmmaker who hopes to use a drone to capture their scenes from a unique angle must first consider basic laws regulating the devices. Luckily, AllDigital Inc. compiled most of the rules regulating drone use and squeezed them into one infographic. Here are the relevant legal tips for filmmakers who plan to use drones:

  • Drone owners are required to register with the FAA before they fly.
  • Drones should display unique registration numbers.
  • The registration process differs for drones that weigh more than 55 pounds.
  • It is illegal to fly over national parks, military bases, sporting events and stadiums, emergency response sites, within 5 miles of airports, over 400 feet or within 25 feet of another person.
  • Videographers are required to file for a Section 333 exemption.
  • Filmmakers must file for the Section 333 exemption 120 days before shooting.

In addition, there are several state-specific regulations that filmmakers have to follow. Some of these states also serve as popular filming locations.

  • In California it is illegal to fly a drone over private property without permission from the owner.
  • In New York City drone owners could soon need licensure and insurance.
  • In Texas only certain professionals can use drones to capture images, and individuals in the film or photos cannot be identifiable.
  • In Chicago it is illegal to fly drones between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. It is also against the law to fly over someone else’s property.

Video shot using drones protected by the First Amendment
Other states and localities have or are working on their own drone regulations. Wherever filmmakers are shooting, it is important to first determine what local regulations regarding drone use are. However, the FAA has conceded that filmmakers do have certain rights when it comes to using drones, as robotics and drone expert Ryan Calo tweeted about at the time of the announcement.

[tweet https://twitter.com/rcalo/status/587798358607077377 width=’100′ align=’center’]

The FAA acknowledged that drone users have a First Amendment right to post and share footage shot with the machines. This is a significant victory for filmmakers who feared the government might take action against them for posting video they shot online. Drones are an undeniably useful tool when it comes to making movies and television shows. But the machines are also undeniably tough to regulate. They will only become more popular in the coming years, both for filmmakers and other commercial purposes.

“Whenever you have a tool at your disposal that allows you to tell the story more efficiently and more poignantly, you use it,” Pieter Jan Brugge, executive producer of Amazon’s series Bosch, told The Wall Street Journal.

Filmmakers will continue to use drones to enhance their projects, its just the question of how that will always need answering, especially in these formative years for regulation. These devices can be dangerous and are a threat to privacy in the wrong hands. To capitalize on the creative potential drones hold, filmmakers have to be careful to understand the law regulating them.

If you have legal questions regarding drones in filmmaking, speak with an entertainment law attorney for more information.