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The drone age is here, and so are the lawyers

“It’s a matter of time — and I think that time is 2014 — until a paparazzo with no training and a drone bought off the Internet crashes into a very pretty face.”

Earlier this month, the BBC broadcast a story shot entirely on a drone. Not one second of imagery in the minute-long report from a massive protest in Thailand was from the ground. Not one human being touched the camera while it recorded. Even the closing shot of the reporter ending the story was shot from the drone as it slowly descended into the crowd where the reporter stood, dutifully informing the viewer of just how big the protests were.

Welcome to the Drone Age of Journalism.

matt-waiteIn the next year, you’re going to see more news outlets like the BBC develop their own dedicated drone units, with specialists who know what they’re doing with a flying robot and a camera. You will see photographers, film companies, documentarians, and anyone else trying to tell stories using drones for their work.

This future will be particularly unevenly distributed because of a patchwork of laws that ban commercial drones (U.S.), heavily restrict them (U.K.) or are bordering on quite liberal with them (Australia). But make no mistake — that won’t stop it. It isn’t stopping it now. The technology exists to be able to do really compelling things with drones and visual media. Fewer and fewer people are letting barely enforced and increasingly untenable aviation regulations stop them from taking advantage.

Governments from nations to townships are going to be considering, passing, regretting, defending, and tinkering with laws regarding unmanned aerial vehicles in the next year and in the years afterward. From place to place, the rules will be different. And that inequality will open doors for news organizations to get into the game in much bigger numbers.

But this is not my prediction. That’s too easy. Any idiot with 10 minutes and a Google search can make that prediction.

My prediction: 2014 will be Zero Hour for drone lawsuits. Unproven technology? Unsettled and ill-defined areas of law? A complete lack of time-tested practices and regulations? It’s everything a creative lawyer with a deep-pocketed and angry client could ever want.

Looking right at you, paparazzi.

The seeds are already in the ground for this. There are a smattering of reports from around the world that by the grace of small miracles alone haven’t already resulted in significant lawsuits. There’s the story of someone crashing a small camera drone in midtown Manhattan nearly hitting someone. There’s the cell phone video of a hexacopter suddenly crashing into the stands at a running-of-the-bulls event in suburban Virginia. And there’s the paparazzo getting busted in Switzerland trying to use a drone to film Tina Turner’s wedding.

It doesn’t take an Oracle of Great Sight to see where this is going. It’s a matter of time — and I think that time is 2014 — until a paparazzo with no training and a drone bought off the Internet crashes into a very pretty face.

It won’t be malicious. They’ll just lose control. Or they won’t understand that the blinking red light means land now because your battery is going to die. Or the wind will pick up. Or another paparazzo will slap the controller out of their hand so their competitor doesn’t get the shot.

And that pretty person in that movie everyone loved is going to need a different kind of plastic surgery.

And that whooshing sound you hear will be legislators at every level rushing to create terrible, reactive, and free-press-hostile laws to make sure it never happens again. Never mind that existing areas of law already cover most of the issues involved. But no one gets re-elected making minor tweaks to shore up existing statutes.

The fact is, paparazzi already view lawsuits and arrests and busted cameras and car accidents as the cost of doing business. Why should it be different when it comes to drones and aviation authority regulators? In the U.S., the one fine the Federal Aviation Administration has issued to a drone operator was $10,000. For exclusive shots of certain celebrities, prices are easily double, triple, and more than that. Do you want these photos, glossy magazine editor? The fine is rolled into the price.

That means there’s little regulatory impediment. There are some criminal laws that could come into play, but they’re untested in the U.S. when it comes to First Amendment principles and have never been used in conjunction with drones. So criminal prosecution, at least right now, might not be a deterrent.

So what’s left is a generic and easily ignored sense of liability that would kick in if something went wrong. If you’re too arrogant to believe something will go wrong, or if the financial incentives are so high that you’re willing to take the risk, there’s nothing to stop you from getting paid for drone captured celebrity photos.

I believe that there’s a tremendous opportunity for responsible users of drone technology to do some really amazing and societally beneficial things. I think responsible journalists using strong ethical and legal reasoning for their actions will lead the way on the integration of drones into our lives. I am realistically optimistic for widespread use of drones in society.

But do not think the path to that Drone Age is going to be completely smooth. And I fear the first pothole in the road comes in 2014. And it might be a doozy.

Matt Waite is a professor of practice at the University of Nebraska’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, teaching reporting and digital product development. Previously, he was the principal developer of PolitiFact.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20