Surveyors v. Drone Photographers: First Amendment Debate

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A lawsuit filed in North Carolina claims that, under the First Amendment, surveyors cannot stop drone operators from selling photos taken from above and making maps.

Typically, a landowner contacts a surveyor to help establish a legal property line. However, what if you just want to see what your property looks like or create a visual map of your property or business as a tool to make decisions about new developments on your property or to determine what type of topography you have? A surveyor is not your only option. Now, you can hire a drone operator to take aerial images using commercial drone software to create orthomosaic maps and 3D images.

North Carolina’s Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors (the Board) may send a warning to drone operators warning them that certain photography might amount to surveying without a license, which could lead to criminal prosecution. Whether that’s practical (or legal) in the evolving drone industry is now up for debate.

Michael Jones, a photographer and videographer from North Carolina who began using drones to obtain images and video about five years ago, takes aerial images for many different client purposes, such as real estate; property management and inspection; and marketing. In 2018, he received a letter from the Board warning that his aerial imaging could be considered surveying without a license (even though he claims that he did not use his work to establish property lines and informed his clients that the images could not be used for legal purposes). However, a Board investigator told Jones that providing images with any metadata (such as GPS coordinates, elevation, or distance) or putting together several images to create a map of the land qualified as surveying and required a state-issued license. Jones ceased his work, worried that he could face criminal prosecution.

Now, in 2021, Jones has partnered with the Institute for Justice in a lawsuit against the Board claiming that the images that Jones created for his clients were not being used for determination of legal boundaries, but only for informational purposes, and therefore, such creating and sharing of information is protected by the First Amendment. A copy of the complaint can be found here.

Perhaps drone operators and traditional surveyors should combine forces: drones could be a useful tool for surveyors, saving time, money, and physical work.

We’ll keep you updated on how the court rules on this one.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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