Vestigial intellectual property rights in space exist, but what about general property rights in space? Are there paths forward to enforce space real property rights (land ownership) and personal property rights (iPod ownership, unless it’s a really big iPod) via earth-based actions?
In order to explore these issues, let’s make a few assumptions. Assumption number one: when space is commercially exploited and settled, the United States will be the largest, richest market for space faring firms. Assumption number two: under the current legal regime, or under one hastily installed upon an individual or company seriously laying claim to land or minerals in space, a private ownership right in goods and services sent to earth from space is recognized.
With these assumptions in mind, a near term and long term path for real recognition and enforcement of property rights in space and on other celestial bodies exists. These enforcement mechanisms do not necessarily require a “space police” force in order to enforce those rights.
Many people, companies, and organizations argue for national or international recognition of some form of private property rights in space.
Both Rand Simberg and the Space Frontier Foundation directly argue for recognition of private property rights in space. At a minimum, they support passage of US laws in the vein of the Space Settlement Prize Act, establishing a path to lunar land ownership for anyone that settles on the moon.
Private companies like Planetary Resources and Shackleton Energy indirectly argue for creation of individual property rights in space resources. Rather than simply lobbying for changes in law, these companies pour their creative energies into actually engineering ways to locate, mine, and bring rare platinum group metals back to earth.
The visionaries behind these companies are surely motivated by other factors, but earning enormous profits most assuredly looms large for them (and their investors!). Because it would be very hard to make any return on investment via “equitable sharing” of the resources returned from space as the Moon Treaty decrees, it is clear that private space mining companies like Planetary Resources and Shackleton Energy seek a path to private property ownership in space.
Even if private property rights are created on paper, will they be more than just words on a page? How will they be enforced? Where will the rights be enforced?
Enforcement of property rights in space should follow the forms used on earth.
On earth, ownership in goods and in land is well established, as are enforcement mechanisms. Private property rights may be protected by government intervention or by private action. The United States has a long history of hitting ner-do-wells in their wallets with civil penalties in order to discourage would be violators. For example, if someone steals your wallet, call the police and they’ll try to get it back for you, fine him, require the payment of restitution to make you whole again, and probably throw that bum in jail! If an individual negligently crashes into your car, you may sue and recover money damages.
Property rights are often enforced via fines and restitution payments which eliminate the profitability of activities which tread on others’ property rights. Often, private or government enforcement of private property right is done exclusively through fines and restitution because monetary punishment is such a powerful deterrent.
Because monetary punishment via fines and/or seizure of stolen goods is effective in deterring violations of property rights on earth, monetary punishment should initially be the only way to enforce property rights in space. As space-based operations expand, monetary punishment should remain the principal enforcement mechanism.
Enforcement should occur at the financial fountainhead of commercial space ventures: earth. Much like the famous Boston tea party, or the modern act of destroying counterfeit goods at the border, any goods procured improperly in space should simply be seized upon landing on the planet. The goods should then be returned to the proper owner or sold off, with the proceeds being returned to the proper owner. No space-based police force would be required, existing customs enforcement agencies could take up the task.
Precedent of a sort has already been established for customs regulation of space goods being brought to earth. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins had to declare the importation of “moon rock and moon dust samples” when they arrived in Hawaii after their successful flight to the moon!
Come back Monday for the conclusion of Property Rights in Space, where we’ll discuss how a possible system for regulating private property ownership in space from earth can be implemented by the United States.