Property Rights Governing Outer Space

Just because you got there first, doesn't mean it's yours. We're in space. 

Property Rights in Space

Property Rights have become one of the most fiercely fought over topics in recent years. We all have a deeply ingrained conception of property rights growing up in the United States and most others around the world do as well. It's understood that if we risk our money, efforts, time and possibly our lives in the pursuit of something that we would have rights over whatever we produced directly or indirectly. Except in space this might not be the case. In fact it might not be legal for you to extract, mine, colonize or otherwise setup shop in space. While there have been several treaties and laws passed over the past 50 years, none of them clearly identify how private property rights in space work for everyone. 

The United States and Luxembourg are trying to tackle these issues by passing legislation to put themselves respectively at the front of their niches of the space economy but neither of them have garnered broad support for their actions. So this leads to the natural and obvious question: if nobody agrees on who owns x, y and z in space, does the ownership even exist? Can the owners be protected from another company coming and piggybacking off their work without any compensation? Believe it or not these are issues that many people (myself included) focusing on developing the space economy have to consider when doing after anything that requires tacit property rights that will be respected here on earth. I feel like I'm in a Star Trek episode after that last sentence. 

But lets dig in to the current treaties and legislation and go over how they currently impact the space economy, space companies and the future of property rights. Below are the two most well know treaties regarding activities in space: The Outer Space Treaty and The Moon Treaty. You can find a more detailed explanation of them on by clicking here.

Outer Space Treaty of 1967

The Outer Space Treat of 1967 was drafted and later ratified by almost every single country in the world with the exception of a few tiny states. OST was designed to accomplish the following items:

  • Ensure that space does not become weaponized or militarized by any nation state
  • Ensure that no state annex's any part of the moon or any other celestial bodies (planets, comets, asteroids etc.) to claim it for their own
  • Ensure that space remains open for anyone all countries use peacefully
  • Every country is responsible for their actions in space.

However, it is important to note that the OST treaty does not directly authorize or prohibit the private ownership of property by companies or individuals which wasn't relevant in the late 1960's. However, now in the light of private space companies with the capacity to reach the moon and other planetary bodies the OST does not provide the appropriate guidance for the issues we are facing today.

The Moon Treaty of 1979

A decade later, a small group of countries attempted to clarify the status of space and govern the economic activities of all countries in space. However, the attempts to grain broad acceptance of the treaty was minimal with only 17 members as of 2016. The main points of the treaty were as follows:

  • Bans the creation of military bases on any celestial body
  • All countries must be notified and agree on all exploration and use of space
  • Any discoveries made in space must be shared will all other countries
  • Bans any private or governmental ownership of any celestial bodies
  • Only an international governmental body could theoretically own space

It should be noted that this is not really a treaty or agreement since this document was never ratified and has no force or oversight of activities in space. It does however show the a school of thought that some countries were considering in regards to how the space economy should operate.