FAA says journalists can’t use drones but can buy drone-created photos/video from hobbyists

In what strikes me as a very strange distinction, the FAA has said this week that journalists and media organizations may not use drones for their newsgathering operations without permission, though they may purchase photos and video from hobbyists that they do not employ.

American journalists and media organizations have been pushing the FAA to rule whether or not they can legally use drones for newsgathering for some time now. In March of last year, a judge ruled that commercial drone use is legal in the US, though the FAA appealed the ruling.

A person who wishes to operate a UAS to take pictures or videos or gather other information that would be sold to media outlets would need an FAA authorization for the operation”FAA, Media Use of UAS, May 5, 2015

Now, in a memorandum issued May 5, 2015 (embedded above), the FAA says using a drone specifically for newsgathering, whether it’s a news organization or a freelancer intending to sell the work to a publication, requires FAA permission as does any other “non-hobby” usage of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drones). However, if a hobbyist happens to take pictures or video and a media organization wants to license that work for news purposes, the FAA says that is okay because the flight is considered authorized.

Hopefully, there will be legal challenges to this memorandum. Both a Forbes contributor and Vice Motherboard have more coverage of this memorandum, raising concerns about the restrictions this places on the press. The memo makes me think of last year’s controversy over proposed US National Forest regulations regarding photography on public lands.

On this subject, do yourself a favor and check out Tomas van Houtryve‘s Blue Sky Days project, if for some strange reason you haven’t seen it yet. It’s been widely published and awarded, and for good reason. The project is the most creative and insightful investigation of American drone warfare that I’ve seen. I saw him present the work to a small crowd a couple weeks ago at the Magenta Foundation‘s Flash Forward Festival in Boston. If he’s presenting in your area, his presentations are well worth checking out.

Wal-Mart of Photography Entrepreneur facing $90 million in lawsuits

First, sports collectors who bought what they thought were original items from Rogers began crying ‘fake.’ Then a series of people Rogers did business with started suing him over unpaid bills. Finally, the FBI raided his place, and he was tossed out of the business, a receiver appointed to make sense of the mess.”The strange saga of John Rogers…, MinnPost

This remains one of the strangest photography-related stories I’ve run across. In 2013, I first wrote about the Rogers Photo Archive‘s efforts to buy up old newspaper photography archives. Rogers claimed to be making $120,000 per week in a 2012 interview, mostly by selling prints, posters, and original negatives from these archives on eBay. Now the entrepreneur is facing at least $90 million in lawsuits and his operation has basically been shut down. The business was raided by the FBI, Rogers was ousted, and the operation has been placed into receivership, according to a piece published this week by MinnPost.

Screenshot of Rogers Photo Archive website - 17 April 2015
Screenshot of Rogers Photo Archive website – 17 April 2015

Rogers had negotiated the purchase of original negatives of millions of photos from newspaper archives across the US, Australia, and New Zealand, including the McClatchy Company, the St. Petersburg Times, the Denver Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Sydney Morning Herald, and others. The Rogers Photo Archive would then restore damaged negatives, digitize and archive the images, and then both give the original newspapers a digital archive (see “What We Do” section of the homepage) and sell images through eBay and its own licensing firm, Argenta Images (link not work as of this writing).

It’s hard to find evidence of the eBay sales now, though there remain a few eBay stores with names similar to Argenta Images and which are operated by accounts with tens of thousands of transactions. All of these stores have 0 active items as of this writing. I can’t say for certain whether they were run by the Rogers Photo Archive, but I’d bet they were.

According to MinnPost, the entire operation has now come crashing down. There are now “more than a dozen lawsuits” aimed at Rogers, seeking in total more than $90 million. Sports collectors thought they had been buying original items but allege that Rogers was selling reproductions (interestingly, Rogers first made news when he bought a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card in 2008). Then businesses came after the archive for unpaid bills and the business has been taken over in receivership.

One of the lawsuits against the Rogers Archive has been brought by Fairfax Media, a New Zealand newspaper company that sold the photo archives of 72 New Zealand newspapers and a number of Australian papers to Rogers. In May 2013, Fairfax sold the photo archives, approximately 8 million images, but did not receive the digitized archive before the Rogers Photo Archive’s recent troubles. The New Zealand Herald says that the sale of the images to Rogers took place only after the country’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage “granted Fairfax a temporary export permit under the Protected Object Act.” The Ministry told the NZ Herald that it is “concerned” about the fate of this historical archive and that it “reserves the right to take action as appropriate.”

(via a friend on Facebook)

More states move to outlaw photographing police activity; Walter Scott shooting video illustrates the necessity

Still from video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by policeman Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC
Still from video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by policeman Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC

News unfolded this week about the police shooting of the unarmed and fleeing Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. It’s another in a long line of fatal shootings by police, many unprovoked and often with underlying race issues. In March of this year, in fact, American police killed more people (111) than the UK police have killed in total since 1900 (52).

In Walter Scott’s murder, video taken by a bystander has played an incredibly important role. In fact, look at the sort of statements about the killing made before the video was released. Initially the police department defended the actions of police officer Michael Slager, saying he followed all procedures. The graphic video, available at the New York Times, contradicts the initial narrative of the incident and apparently shows the police officer planting a taser near Scott’s body. After the video, officer Slager was arrested and charged with murder. And while video evidence of Eric Garner’s killing by police was not enough for a grand jury indictment (the whole grand jury system has issues, especially when dealing with accused police officers), it’s clear that the right to film and photograph police activity plays an important role in American democracy.

There has been widespread call for police to wear body cameras at all times, though many rightly suggest that this will be most effective only if the cameras and video are controlled and archived by an independent third party. The US Department of Justice has a huge document titled Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned. The ACLU is also worried about violations of individuals’ privacy when police record all activity all the time, as well. Nevertheless, it’s been shown that police body cameras have substantial positive effects on policing, including less violence and fewer citizen complaints.

Sometimes law enforcement makes mistakes, and I would appreciate that, as a former law enforcement officer, that is not aired on TV for entertainment.” Montana Rep. Dale Mortensen (R-Billings)

All of this should illustrate why it is so troubling that states around the country continue attempts to restrict people’s right to record police activity with video or still photography. We’ve covered the issue often over the past few years. This year, both Montana (where I’m from) and Texas legislators have proposed laws restricting the filming of police. The proposed (now dropped, see update below) Texas law HB 2918 would only allow registered “news media” to record police, and only from at least 25 feet away. The Montana law, proposed bill HB633, would also only allow media to film police and require them to get a $100 permit from the police department to be filmed. Rep. Dale Mortensen (R-Billings) introduced the bill and said that, “Sometimes law enforcement makes mistakes, and I would appreciate that, as a former law enforcement officer, that is not aired on TV for entertainment.”

The tide may be turning on this issue, though. Both Colorado and California legislators recently introduced bills to protect those who film police. In Colorado, HB 15-1290, creates punishments for officers found to have interfered with people lawfully recording their activity. The proposed California bill, SB 411, clarifies state law by stating that merely recording a police officer conducting official duty should not automatically be considered interference with a police officer. A Baltimore police department recently paid $250,000 for seizing and deleting people’s cell phone videos. And a Seattle police officer was recently fired after threatening to arrest a newspaper editor for filming him.

The only person involved in the video of Eric Garner’s death to be indicted was the man who recorded the video of the incident. Though his indictment was not related to the filming, he fears that guards will poison his food at Rikers Prison, just as is alleged by 19 other inmates there. The man who filmed the killing of Walter Scott told the Washington Post that he kept the footage secret for days, fearing for his life, but ultimately decided to let the video out because of how different it was from how police described the incident.

As always, know your rights when filming or photographing police. And even if you believe you’re in the right, if the situation turns dangerous and a police officer threatens you, it’s best not to escalate the situation with a discussion of your rights. Nevertheless, here are some good guides regarding photography and the police in the US: 7 Rules for Recording the Police and the ACLU’s various links regarding police and photography.

UPDATE (13 April 2015): The Texas bill to limit recording of police activity has been dropped. The sponsoring politician cited large public outcry as a reason for withdrawing the bill.