It’s always a problem when a private citizen starts horning in on the government’s racket. The government has plenty of rackets and likes them to stay in their possession, undisturbed and unthreatened.
When the government feels threatened, it starts making threats. And, since it has almost all the power, its threats usually work. But sometimes it gets sued. That’s what’s happening here: a government regulatory body has decided the incumbent interests it has propped up for years is more important than little things like the First Amendment.
A drone operator in North Carolina is suing the state because it claims he can’t fly drones over land and take pictures without the proper license. It’s not a commercial drone operator license. (He has that.) It’s a license that basically says the government has given him permission to photograph the land underneath the drones his company operates. (h/t Techdirt reader Vidiot)
Here’s the impetus of the lawsuit being brought by photographer Michael Jones, as summarized by Miriam McNabb of Drone Life:
Hiring a surveyor is an expensive business, but necessary if you want to establish legal property lines. What if you just want to see what your property looks like, or create a visual map of your property or work place in order to help make decisions about new development or see what type of topography you have? While previously, you may have had to hire surveyors to make a map, now that information is readily available by using aerial images. Commonly available commercial drone software is designed to do exactly this: creating orthomosaic maps and 3D images.
Surveyors apparently don’t like the competition. In North Carolina, they’re trying to push drone operators out of business. “…drone entrepreneurs on the cutting edge are finding a very old industry standing in the way: land surveying. In North Carolina, the Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors [the NC Board] sends warnings to drone operators saying that certain photography amounts to surveying without a license and threatens them with possible criminal prosecution.”
Michael Jones is being represented by the Institute for Justice. His lawsuit [PDF] claims that, first of all, he’s not actually engaging in the land surveying that falls under the control of the North Carolina Board of Examiners. Or, at least, he shouldn’t be, but the Board has engaged in some weird form of eminent domain, rolling up every possible definition of aerial drone photography and converting it into something it can sell licenses to engage in.
In North Carolina… drone start-ups have found themselves targeted by a centuries-old profession: land surveyors. As most people would understand it, “land surveying” involves establishing legal boundaries between tracts of land. Yet the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors (Board) takes a far more aggressive view. According to the Board, capturing and disseminating data about the dimensions or elevations of land—or the size of objects on land—requires a full-blown land-surveyor license. Drawing even rough approximations of property lines on images requires a land-surveyor license. Even stitching aerial photos together using orthomosaic software requires a land-surveyor license.
So, the stuff many wouldn’t associate with the licensed act of surveying is considered subject to Board rules and regulations. The Board’s aggression manifested itself with an investigation of Jones’ company, 360 Virtual Drone Services. The Board claimed Jones was engaging in unlicensed land surveying. But Jones has never presented himself as a “surveyor,” nor has he offered surveying services to anyone. All he has done is take photos of land from the air at the request of customers. That didn’t stop the Board from threatening him with civil and criminal “consequences” unless he was willing to open up his wallet and participate in the local government’s licensing scheme.
Jones refused. And has greeted these threats — ones delivered to at least another half-dozen drone companies in North Carolina — with allegations that this regulation violates his First Amendment rights.
[B]oth the Board and the statutes it enforces violate the First Amendment at a bedrock level. Simply, the projects the Board targets—aerial photos, data, 3D digital models, and the like—are speech that is fully protected by the First Amendment.
As Jones points out in the lawsuit, the restrictions the board places on aerial photography are content-based. Some aerial photos are fine but those containing any sort of useful data, like the stuff that appears on sites like Google Maps (elevations, geographical coordinates, property boundaries), are considered to be land surveying even if — as Jones has made clear to customers — he does not offer surveying services. He has also made it explicit the photos customers purchased from him did not establish property lines and could not be used for legal purposes.
At this point, Jones’ drone photography business is on hold. Hopefully the court will find in his favor and let him get back to work. If the state really wants to protect surveyors, it should nudge them towards getting commercial drone operator licenses. This would foster competition, rather than ensure surveyors who have been slow on the tech uptake still have a captive market.