OPINION: Rules on aerial images expose a flaw in drone pilot law


Drone pilot law and the way in which authorities regulate on intellectual property relating to pictures captured by drone raises some fundamental questions for commercial drone pilots, writes John Williams at Suffolk Drone and Digital Imaging Services.

I am quite concerned with the Government regulating what I can and can’t do with my property as an image maker. Once I take a photo or video on my drone, it legally becomes my property and I own the copyright. No-one has the authority to regulate what I do with that image. Not unless I breach data protection but that applies to all images, whether they are taken from a drone or not.

I fully understand the need to regulate drone pilots in the UK as we have one of if not the smallest and most congested airspace in the world and obviously the amount of pilots being allowed to use airspace, and their skill, needs to be regulated to avoid potential accidents and incidents.

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However, why should these regulations extend to the end use of my images from the drone? They have no right to regulate this but I have no choice but to pay the ransom.

I paid a lot of money, studied at a drone flight school, took my tests, wrote my ops manual, supplied my log book and so on to get my PfCO but what does that actually do for me? Because it certainly isn’t a permission to fly my drone that’s for sure.

In my eyes, the expensive cost of the course, the test, and the permission, should be all about preserving the safety of the public; why else would I have to learn all of the CAA’s flight rules, the ANO, meteorology, CAP 393, demonstrate my piloting ability, even re-write my ops manual for the renewal if not for the sole purpose of minimising risk to the public during my drone operations.

Let’s disregard congested areas and restricted airspace for a second and discuss a hypothetical situation.

Another drone owner is just as entitled as me to fly his drone, without any permission from the CAA, as long as he doesn’t fly within the boundaries of congested/restricted areas or at night.

However, what I don’t get is that this person, who has no training, no PfCo, no idea about weather conditions, risk assessment and all of the other considerations expected to be assessed by a qualified pilot, can quite legally fly in ‘recreational’ class G airspace alongside me without paying a penny to the CAA.

The only difference between me and them in this scenario is that the CAA’s ‘permission’ allows me to ‘sell’ any images or video that I take during the flight.

How is it, in any way, the remit of the CAA to legislate what I choose to do with copyrighted images taken from my drone? It’s not their remit at all. There is absolutely no point in having the PfCO unless I am flying in restricted or congested areas.

The drone pilot without the PfCO can take a flight over a field near my house and photograph anything they want as long as they say that their intent at the time was not to sell the photos.

Despite this, if they decide in six months or a year’s time that the drone photo they shot and put on Social Media has got lots of people asking to a buy a print, they could choose to make some money out of it at no cost to them whatsoever.

So, my point is that the PfCO seems completely meaningless, and is just the CAA’s way of grabbing money from conscientious, professional pilots who have no choice but to pay as a ‘captive audience.’ If it’s main purpose is to regulate the sale of images instead of being about the safety of the public and regulation of airspace, the only two things that the PfCO entitles me to do over the next person without a permission, is to fly over towns and cities and sell my images.

As I said, I completely understand the need for regulation but whether I am selling images from my drone or making money from it has nothing to do with the CAA or the Health and Safety of the public, the two things do not relate.

It seems to me that the purpose of the PfCO is more about funding the underfunded CAA’s Drone Department, which as a Governmnet department, is already funded by the taxpayer and not really about the safety of the public at all.

I would argue that the CAA is potentially illegally using its power to regulate what I do with my own, original, copyrighted material and it is just not on.

This doesn’t happen in any other field of photography or image making, for example there’s no Government department telling me I need a licence to take pictures on a massive long pole with my SLR stuck on the top.

Since gaining my PfCO I have been having this ongoing debate with the CAA but still can’t get them to give me an explanation. I truly think it needs one – for the benefit of the industry.

John Williams is director at Suffolk Drone and Digital Imaging Services, a provider of UAV-based high quality imagery.

Tags : Drone pilot lawIntellectual Propertyopinionregulation
Alex Douglas

The author Alex Douglas


  1. An interesting argument.
    Are UAV pilots able to get public liability insurance from any insurers without a PfCO?

    1. As far as I am aware you can get general public liability insurance for recreational use without a PfCO. I got mine by joining the British Model Flying Club. All their insurance cover is explained on their website and you get it for free as a member, I think. I’m not sure that it covers the actual drone itself, just your public liability.
      As far as drone cover itself goes you may be able to include it in your house insurance policy like I have. It didn’t cost anything but I did have to ring them up and change the maximum payout allowance for the policy in order to cover the drone. They didn’t have a problem with that and said I would be covered even if I flew the thing into the sea.

  2. John’s article is very topical. But this is not new. Having been involved in the aviation world for many years as a pilot as well as a drone pilot, you also need a commercial pilot’s licence to fly a plane or helicopter for commercial gain or reward. This includes taking images from an aircraft for commercial reasons. So taking up a photographer in your light aircraft to profit from the image taken you would require a commercial pilot’s licence and all the expense and time to get that licence.

  3. John, you raise interesting points about the distinction between commercial operations and leisure activity. Some jurisdictions are starting to consider whether such a distinction is needed from an air safety perspective. As you know, the PfCO is mandated under UK Air Navigation Order (ANO) 2016 so arguing that the CAA is illegally restricting your ability to make living from selling your drone imagery is perhaps a false narrative.

    You have the requisite permission and are therefore able to do commercial work with a drone. However, amateur drone operators making money on the side by filming and/or pictures for commercial gain, without a PfCO, are in breach of the ANO. If caught, they are liable to prosecution. The CAA are there to regulate that activity and maintain safety and operational standards that you have worked hard to achieve. Your beef should really be with those who deliberately choose to sit outside of the regulations. It akin to someone practising a regulated activity without a licence – taxi drivers, medical professionals, accountants, lawyers, airline pilots etc. Think about how mad we get with uninsured drivers when the rest of us have to pay our insurance premiums knowing an element of it covers this scenario.

    Is the CAA in need of funds generated by PfCOs? Yes, almost certainly. That’s just a budgetary fact of civil service life in the UK unfortunately. Are they actively seeking to prevent your use of your intellectual property (other than privacy concerns, as you mentioned)? Nah.

  4. You have totally missed the point about why the CAA have legislated drones. It has nothing to do with your pictures and everything to do with the purpose of your flight and thus the safety of that flight. A hobbyist who took some pictures for fun can quite legally sell those pictures without a PfCO. However if you were being paid for the flight in order to gain data then a PfCO is required. The pressures and locations etc will vary greatly from a hobbyist to a professional. A professional will have pressure from clients, from the financial need to sustain the business etc that means a greater understanding is required. Furthermore the public quite rightly have an expectation to know that anyone doing anything professionally regardless of it being a drone or not are current, capable and competent.

  5. Hi Micky,
    Thanks for looking me up. I do have one yes, but it ran out end of April so it’s waiting for renewal.. If you look on a 1361 that’s a couple weeks old I’ll still be on there 😀 Part of the reason that this came up was because of me having to renew.

  6. Just to correct you, the CAA is not a government department and does not receive taxpayer funding. The CAA is self funded through its regulated community.

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