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Legislature mulls curbs on use of aerial drones by paparazzi

Proposal would prohibit the use of drones to collect video, photos and audio from celebrities
The FAA estimates that 30,000 drones will fill the nation's skies in less than 20 years

When singer Miley Cyrus recently spotted a mysterious drone hovering over her Los Angeles home, she posted video of the aerial intruder on Instagram, complaining that it appeared to be a new tactic by the paparazzi.

The incident, in which Cyrus was photographed in her backyard, was no surprise to Patrick J. Alach. He is legal counsel for the Paparazzi Reform Initiative, a group representing celebrities and others that has persuaded lawmakers to tighten laws governing photography of those he represents.

The use of aerial drones equipped with cameras to catch celebrities at home and in other private places is "a huge concern, especially for public figures who want to have some privacy in their backyards," Alach said.

A proposal pending in the Legislature would prohibit the use of aerial drones to collect video, photos and audio from celebrities and others in a way that violates their privacy rights.

The concentration of entertainment-industry figures and paparazzi in California has led to other restrictions on photographers. One enacted last year made it illegal to photograph a celebrity's son or daughter without consent if it causes substantial emotional distress.

"Having a district that covers Los Angeles, we have plenty of paparazzi issues as it is, without having drones hovering over nightclubs or restaurants," state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) said.

Some media groups object to further restrictions.

"For the most part, these laws are written so overly broad and vague that they impede and infringe upon news gathering," said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Assn. "They couch everything in the terms of the paparazzi," but drones, like helicopters, can have legitimate news gathering purposes, he said.

Osterreicher said adequate privacy laws already exist, and the commercial use of drones is already prohibited in federal airspace by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is in the process of developing guidelines for their use by next year.

The FAA estimates that 30,000 drones will fill the nation's skies in less than 20 years as public and private uses are allowed.

Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park) introduced the pending state legislation. It would build on existing state law against invasion of privacy by photographers using enhanced devices such as telephoto lenses or long-range microphones.

Chau noted that the law does not clearly address the emergence of drones, and it could be argued that they are not enhanced devices. His bill would remove the enhancement element, extending the law to any device, including drones.

"As we continue to push the boundaries of technology by developing devices that grant us access to previously inaccessible locations and allow us to perform otherwise difficult tasks from a distance," Chau said, "we are also pushing the boundaries of personal space and privacy."

Those in the paparazzi business disagree on how drones should be used.

The pictures of Cyrus in her backyard were offered for sale to a major photo broker, who told The Times he declined to purchase them because he does not buy photos of people on their private property.

The broker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of liability, said he uses drones to take shots of celebrities' homes for a website as long as no individuals can be seen in the pictures to raise personal privacy issues.

On the East Coast, operators of the website 247paps.tv boasted of using a drone to get video of actress Selena Gomez in March when a shoot for an Adidas ad was blocked from photographers' view.

In Los Angeles, celebrity photographer Giles Harrison last week took pictures in public places of rocker Steven Tyler and actor Pierce Brosnan. But he said it would be "creepy" to use a drone to get an image of someone in their backyard.

"There are certain lines that paparazzi shouldn't cross," Harrison said, "and I feel that the use of drones to photograph celebrities more than crosses that line."

Another veteran Hollywood photographer, Eric Ford, said that if the proposed California law is enacted, he will have to reconsider the possibility of getting a drone to stay competitive. But he said there may be times when drones are justified.

"I totally understand if you are the person being photographed that that could maybe be unsettling," Ford said. "The only thing I would say to that is: If you don't want to be photographed doing something, just be inside your house."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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