Floating Trademarks issues: iPhones on the ISS

Two iPhone 4 smartphones we shipped to the ISS on the last Shuttle mission.

Apple products seem to be everywhere today. It seems impossible to find an mp3 player that is not an iPod. Smartphone market share is largely measured in terms of “iPhone” and “not iPhone.” More macbooks are sold at retail than any other personal computer in the world. And then there are the legions of loyal fans that have inked their support of those Cupertino minimalists on their bodies. As of STS-135, there are even iPhones on the International Space Station (ISS). That’s right, ISS personnel use two iPhone 4 smartphones to monitor experiments aboard the floating station. They even have a custom app, SpaceLab for iOS, which we earth-bound (for now) people can download on our more down to earth iOS products. Here in the United States, Apple’s trademarks like the bitten-apple logo and the term “IPHONE” itself are reserved for the exclusive use of Apple and people Apple authorizes under Federal trademark law (the Lanham Act, don’t pronounce the “h” if you don’t want to be made fun of in front of all your IP buddies…), but what protects Apple’s hard earned brand cache on the International Space Station? Or can the more entrepreneurial ISS astronauts don black turtlenecks, slap an Apple logo on anything they feel like, and sell it for twice the normal price?

Despite the seemingly brilliant business model described above, ISS astronauts can’t slip past trademark protections simply because they’re floating 200 miles above the earth and passing over countries which may or may not protect a given mark (like an Apple logo, for instance) at 17000 mph. Intellectual property rights are actually protected on the ISS under the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA). The IGA governs not only intellectual property rights for items on the ISS, it covers discoveries and creations too. It also covers virtually all of the contributing countries’ rights and ongoing responsibilities toward the space station. Article 22 even laws out how criminal acts, such as violence, among the astronauts will be legally handled!

Article 21 of the IGA lays out how intellectual property is treated on the ISS. Article 21(2) states:

“[F]or purposes of intellectual property law, an activity occurring in or on a Space Station flight element shall be deemed to have occurred only in the territory of the Partner State of that element’s registry…”

Essentially, with respect to intellectual property rights like trademark rights, the fifteen ISS partner countries treat each individual module of the ISS as if is they are the soil of the country that registered the module. Under one of the Big Four space law treaties, the 1975 Registration Convention, launching countries are required to register their ownership of space objects the put into orbit. The UN keeps a registry of these space objects, including their current status. Different countries own different modules on the ISS. For example, the United States owns and registered the laboratory module Destiny (where Nanoracks has its experiment space and the iPhones will be used), therefore US trademark law (the Lanham Act) applies. In another module, Russian intellectual property law or Japanese intellectual property law will apply.

In the case of our friends the iPhones, their trademarks are registered in all the member nations of the ISS, therefore no intrepid astronaut can sell knockoffs and Apple CEO Tim Cook can rest easily knowing that his iPhones are the only apple adorned smartphones orbiting over head.

Happy creating!

Update: Turns out they really do play Angry Birds (of a sort) on the International Space Station.

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