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pash · 2012-02-18 · Original thread
Serious reply to an unserious question:

In the common law tradition, land owners' property rights extended literally "to the heavens" [0]. Overflying someone's property (in a balloon, say) was legally a trespass. But in the United States land-owners' air rights were progressively diminished by the courts in deference to practical considerations as civil aviation developed in the first half of the last century. In 1946, in a ruling that is the basis of current law, the Supreme Court decided that a land-owner "owns at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land," and invasions of that airspace "are in the same category as invasions of the surface." [1] Rights to the rest of the country's airspace appertain to the federal government.

So if your nemesis sends a drone into the space immediately over your property, you would likely have the same rights to respond as if he had sent a land-lubbing robot onto it. (Courts have ruled that a crane overhanging one's property constitutes a trespass, for instance.) Generally you would be able to seek an injunction against continued trespass and/or sue for damages under various torts (interference, nuisance, etc.). You probably would not have the right to shoot down the drone, unless perhaps you have reason to believe that the drone might do you serious harm and you are in a jurisdiction where some form of the Castle doctrine [2] applies.

Rights to airspace, and how they've changed over the years, are a great illustration of how property rights are not at all static but are continually rejiggered to fit the times. (Perhaps we can expect more tweaks as drones become common?) Michael Heller's book Gridlock Economy [3] has an interesting chapter on how rights to airspace have been adapted to allow for civil aviation. If you're super interested, there is at least one full-length book [4] (which I haven't read) on the history of the legal concept of airspace in the United States.






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