Is it illegal for a newspaper to publish drone photos without a Part 107 license?

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about whether it is legal to publish drone photos. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

I have a question. My husband and I have devoted time and considerable cash to starting a legal, licensed drone photography business. Our local newspaper is publishing drone photography done by another unlicensed hobby pilot. Is this not illegal?

This is an interesting question, and one we might not have the answer to unless we get more information. First off, I want to say this is not legal advice and you should always ask a lawyer, but I’ll offer my opinion.

The key question is — did money exchange hands? If yes — meaning the local newspaper paid the photographer for the aerial images that they published — then what happened here was in fact illegal.

But if no money exchange hands, then there’s nothing illegal here, as long as they follow in accordance with recreational hobby drone rules such as staying outside of the 5-mile radius of an airport and remaining within visual line of sight.

If that’s the case, then the pilot flew the drone under recreational or hobby drone guidelines and simply “donated” the footage to the newspaper.

The FAA defines recreational or hobby UAS use as flying for enjoyment and not for work, business purposes, or for compensation or hire. According to the FAA, “UAS use for hobby is a ‘pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation'” and added that “UAS use for recreation is refreshment of strength and spirits after work; a means of refreshment or division.'”

We see newspapers publishing presumably unpaid drone footage all the time. I found this example from the Philly Voice which shows aerial images of Philadelphia pretty interesting — the newspaper went out of its way to indicate that the images were shared for free.

This leads to a bigger discussion around drone photographers sharing their photos for free in order to gain exposure — and how that may be hurting the Part 107 drone pilot industry and businesses like yours. I won’t go down that rabbit hole now, but perhaps I may save that discussion for next week (or for the comments section below!).


  • Drone Minds says:

    “staying outside of the 5-mile radius of an aircraft”.. I think that last word is meant to be “airport”?

  • Great article ! A local media company is out flying a drone for their new coverage of a sporting event and feel it is covered as “hobbiest” because the sporting event is a hobby event. I forwarded this to the editor … THANK YOU !!

  • Troy says:

    It all depends on the intent of the flight when the flight began. Was the pilot just out for a recreational or hobby flight and then all of the sudden took a picture that the paper could use, then yes it’s OK. If the pilot was flying with the intention of taking photos for the newspaper even with no pay involved, then it’s against FAA guidelines. A drone pilot does not have to get a paycheck in order for it to be against guidelines by the FAA.

    • Chris says:

      Troy’s answer here is the right one, as stated by multiple lawyers specializing in commercial drone operations. The FAA considers the intent of the flight as the key factor, whether money changed hands or not, in defining commercial operation. If the images/video are used in a way that furthers a business, and they were captured with the intent of using them for that purpose, it’s no longer “hobby”

      • LogoQRcode says:

        What if you have a (paid) meeting about professional real estate photography, and part on the end you show them introduction into aerial photography, can they watch you fly or even try flying?

    • LogoQRcode says:

      not sure if its that way 100% Each time I fly my intent is recreational, but I take always photos. What happen if later one of the photos on my web page would be sold as art ? Or can I use the photo later on my real estate business page just to show the city above ? The intent was not there but later seem like the photos are great to look on my page or someone may ask you can I buy that photo !

  • Charles West says:

    If an individual who sells photos or video gathered with a drone in the US flying in US airspace , he or she must be a commercial drone licensed in accordance with Part 107. The paper has committed no crime by printing the photo/video unless the drone pilot was in their employ and not licensed.
    If the pilot shared photos at no personal gain, there is no violation of regulations.
    I see professional drone pilots as individuals working for larger organizations that have a use/need for drone service. Individual pilot contractors may find that drone pilot jobs may not be on every street corner as some suggest.

  • Seth Zora says:

    I watched an FAA webinar where Kevin Morris brought up this very question. He stated that if it is for business betterment , for money or not, then it is a requirement to have a part 107. Even though that individual may have “donated“ their pictures it is still a business betterment and in this case illegal. I am not a lawyer and I am not giving legal advice, but rather sharing what was shared via the webinar.

  • Good topic of discussion. As others have mentioned, the FAA uses a very broad definition of “commercial” and it doesn’t require money to exchange hands – merely bringing some kind of business value. This can even include work for non-profits. In short, if you will be doing anything that might bring value to someone, safest bet is to just get your Part 107. It’s really not that hard – an relatively easy test and $150 to cover all your bases. I wrote a short post awhile back about which scenarios might require a Part 107 remote license :

    Happy Flying!

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