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Drone Maker to Prevent Its Drones From Flying in D.C.

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on January 29, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After a drunken federal employee flew a drone over the White House lawn, the drone's manufacturer "announced that a new, mandatory firmware update would help users comply with" an FAA regulation that Washington, D.C., is a no-fly zone.

Of course, by "help users comply," the company -- DJI -- means that the new firmware will unilaterally disable drones' ability to fly within the no-fly zone.

It's Not Really Your Stuff

And this is a concern, one more item to be added to the bucket marked "You Don't Own Your Stuff in the Digital Age." What you own is a license, which can be freely modified or even revoked. Owners of Amazon's Kindle learned this the hard way a few years ago, when suddenly "Nineteen Eighty-Four" -- of all books -- mysteriously vanished from the Kindles of people who had paid the requisite price for a copy of George Orwell's vision of a dystopian future. Amazon said it was a mistake and graciously deigned to restore the deleted copies, but the fact remains that the deletion was possible at all.

From coffee makers to automobiles, Digital Rights Management (DRM) is everywhere, making sure that you don't use the stuff you bought in any way other than the ways the company you bought it from wants you to -- even if those ways vitiate rights you'd otherwise have back in meatspace.

For example, the first sale doctrine allows you to freely alienate anything you bought, and the original seller doesn't have a say or get any money out of it. Want to sell your copy of "Fifty Shades of Grey" on eBay? No problem.

But your Kindle copy is different. Because you don't own a physical thing -- just one right among the many "bundle of sticks" that we call "property" -- Amazon can prevent you from transferring your steamy novel (now a major motion picture!) to anyone else. And let's be clear here: The only reason they didn't do it when you had a paper book is because they couldn't. The same technology that enables you to effortlessly download something also enables the supplier of that thing to take it away from you at any time.

Horribles on Parade

Which brings us back to drones. While it might be laudable that DJI is taking the initiative to enforce the FAA's no-fly zone, it sets a dangerous precedent. What if police were able to remotely disable car engines? Or, as the FBI wants, to crack a person's telephone encryption? Or, as the MPAA wants, to disable the Internet connection of any person who's remotely suspected of pirating a single movie? Sure, it's a parade of horribles, but every parade has to start somewhere.

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