Person flying a drone

Technology has given filmmakers a wide assortment of tools with which to craft their stories.  One of the more recent advancements to gain prominence within the video making community is autonomous recording, where other devices are shooting footage, rather than you controlling the camera. There's been some debate about filmmaker rights and the use of autonomous video for commercial purposes.

Autonomous video refers to any footage captured with the aid of inanimate objects.  There are a few devices which could be considered for this, but the most common one people use now are drones. Drones themselves aren't new, but as they become cheaper for average consumers, and cameras continue to shrink in size and weight, they're being used more and more frequently. 

Drones have presented amateur filmmakers some interesting opportunities, allowing them to record footage from angles and heights they could have never achieved before. There's a problem, however. Technically speaking, you're not legally allowed to use autonomous footage in your projects commercially, which even includes getting paid for wedding videography. While recent changes in the laws have paved the way for general commercial drone photography use, currently only a handful of major businesses are allowed to do so under strict regulations. 

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The legal reasoning behind it has more to do with fears over unwarranted surveillance, but the latest argument being made is over ownership. Some contend that footage shot autonomously cannot be owned and a person has no right to claim it. Since you technically don’t “own” it, you obviously can’t sell it as yours either. 

Some contend that footage shot autonomously cannot be owned and a person has no right to claim it. 

While there are legitimate concerns regarding drone photography use, ownership rights shouldn’t be among them. Autonomous filming is yet another tool in the box for filmmakers to help them achieve shots that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. The fact that you aren’t holding the camera isn’t a factor. After all, filmmakers now don't legally make that distinction for camera crews. Could you imagine Janusz Kami?ski, Steven Spielberg’s director of photography, suing for the rights to all of Spielberg’s footage simply because the director didn’t shoot it personally?

The notion itself is kind of ridiculous and so too are the arguments for not owning autonomous footage. If you’re lucky enough to have a crew on your set — or just a friend holding the camera — they’re recording scenes based on the ideas you crafted and mapped out. Simply because your friend is holding the camera and helping you execute those shots doesn’t mean it’s not your footage. Videos are a sum of many different parts, but it’s the overall idea and result which make it uniquely yours.

As with any project, every shot you record is planned out and captured in a specific way to help tell your story. Your ideas and execution are what makes the footage yours, not the manner in which it’s recorded. If that weren’t the case, some could argue using a gimbal or crane to record footage falls into the same autonomous category. Even stranger, there are aerial cameras that filmmakers have used legally for years, but drones don’t fall into that category for some reason.

Since the inception of filmmaking, people have crafted a multitude of ways to capture footage in more accessible ways; drones aren't the exception. The footage you plan out and implement in your storytelling is yours, regardless of how you capture it. Hopefully, future legislation will come around to this idea, and allow filmmakers the use of another handy tool.

Jordan Maison is an editor and VFX artist whose plied his talents in web content for Disney Studios as well as movie and videogame websites.

Susan is the Art Director at Videomaker and YouTuber Magazines.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Great thought provoking article. I wish it delved deeper into the issues.

    In your article you said, “Technically speaking, you’re not legally allowed to use autonomous footage in your projects commercially”. Please provide some references to what laws or policies have lead you to this statement.

    Please give us the legal definition of “autonomous footage”.
    For example, if my camera is on “full auto”, setting exposure, shutter speed, ISO and white balance, wouldn’t that make it “autonomous footage” at least by some definition? What about footage taken by a surveillance camera triggered automatically by a motion detector? Is all the footage shot by the SOLOSHOT Robot Cameraman also off-limits for commercial usage?

    You also said, “Since you technically don’t “own” it, you obviously can’t sell it as yours either.” Is a work of art is “unowned”, then is is not in the public domain? Is it not perfectly legal to sell works of art in the public domain? Plus, if you make artistic changes to it, do you not hold the copyright to that transformed work?

    Maybe you need to get an intellectual lawyer to write an article to give us some clarity on these issues and what we might expect in the future.

    In addition, consider this strange case (quote from Wikipedia):
    “The hosting of the images on Wikimedia Commons was at the centre of a dispute in mid-2014 over whether copyright could be held on artworks made by non-human animals. Slater’s claim of copyright on the images was disputed by several scholars and organizations, based on an understanding that copyright was held by the creator, and that a non-human creator (not being a legal person) could not hold copyright. In December 2014, the United States Copyright Office stated that works created by a non-human are not subject to US copyright. In 2016, a US federal judge ruled that the monkey cannot own the copyright to the images.”

    Another statement from the article, “Could you imagine Janusz Kamiński, Steven Spielberg’s director of photography, suing for the rights to all of Spielberg’s footage simply because the director didn’t shoot it personally?” I think that Kamiński is very likely working under a “work for hire” contract, thus making the footage copyright belong to the production company (not Spielberg personally). Perhaps the software in the “autonomous” device should be considered to be “work for hire” too. (This was true for me when I wrote software for a client. If they wanted exclusive rights to the product then we executed a work for hire contract. Otherwise, according to the laws in California, we both held a non-exclusive copyright in the final product.)

    And, “Simply because your friend is holding the camera and helping you execute those shots doesn’t mean it’s not your footage.” If you have no written legal document then I think that could be disputed. Again, if you think the footage is going to be valuable, then you may need a work for hire contact. (I’m not a lawyer so get legal advice from somebody competent.)

    Slowly and steadily corporations are asserting ownership of things with software in them. Take the example of John Deer.

    “IT’S OFFICIAL: JOHN Deere and General Motors want to eviscerate the notion of ownership. Sure, we pay for their vehicles. But we don’t own them. Not according to their corporate lawyers, anyway.” (http://www.wired.com/2015/04/dmca-ownership-john-deere/) How long until this idea is applied to cameras?

    Drones are just a continuation of automation being added to all devices. Soon AI will take a much more active role in many creative and artistic activities of all kinds. Our laws need to adapt to the changes. Too bad the US congress is really incapable of understanding the issue other than to take actions that help assure their reelection and that means favoring big corporations.

  2. It’s an interesting topic for debate, but I think the bottom line links back to who is controlling the device. We say “autonomous,” but the drones are not really autonomous, at least not yet. At some point someone programmed the route, such as with Mission Planner or Tower, meaning they set the route and scene. Someone owned the drone and camera, so intellectual property rights would normally attach to them, unless they were paid by someone else to shoot the footage. I understand the logic of the argument, but true autonomous video capture is something to debate when artificial intelligence evolves to the point where there is no human in the decision-making loop. At this time I would categorize drone footage simply as remotely controlled video capture.

  3. I have to agree with Robert. Where does it say I don’t own the footage? Does this apply to the camera at the end of a jib? What about the camera on sticks? How about at the end of a selfie stick? These questions could go on forever. All of the devices, no matter of how autonomous they are are still being controlled by a human being. The camera sitting on your shoulder is still “an inanimate object”. Where would all the still photographers be if this is so? Many have set there cameras up and taken pictures using the built-in timer or used a remote and all have claimed the pictures as theirs.

    As I write this I begin to question the article. Is this just trying to get people stirred up? I have to believe that until a drone can unbox itself and fly around recording video without any human interaction will this be an issue.

  4. Wow, this article is not only poorly written but poorly researched. It’s incredible that the editors of Videomaker allowed this to be published. It reads like an inexperienced blogger relating something he heard in a chat room.

  5. And it’s an article from 2015! A lot has happened since then. Why is this outdated article even being promoted?

  6. Drone footage of privately owned property, without a shooting permit, SHOULD NOT be used in anyone’s film….PERIOD. It does not matter if it is shot by a drone…OR A VIDEOGRAPHER !

Comments are closed.