Property Rights in Space, Part 1 of 2: No Space Police Needed

Is a space-based police force necessary? Image via BoingBoing.

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.

Apollo 11 astronauts filled out this customs form upon their return to earth, declaring importation of moon rocks and dust.

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.

Happy creating!

7 thoughts on “Property Rights in Space, Part 1 of 2: No Space Police Needed

  1. In law school we had a visit from a U.S. Customs official who mentioned that even returning space shuttle astronauts were met by Customs officials. It makes sense considering the astronauts were outside the country and more so when the space shuttles visited the Mir space station.

  2. Pingback: Thursday / 9 August 2012 | Lunar Enterprise Daily

  3. Very creative and interesting idea. Insofar as platinum group metals, they can be mined in space, refined, verified by another party to purity and weight, then stored “in situ” and not brought back to Earth. The space metals can be sold on Earth in the same way they are presently sold, and usually not moved from the vault. The buyer is the new owner and the vault remains the holder. Storing metals on an asteroid or the Moon is a pretty darn secure vault. Other than that scenario, your Customs enforcement plan is pretty good. Thanks!

  4. Thanks, Greg! You make a good point that Customs interdiction wouldn’t be the best enforcement mechanism for mined minerals which have been stored in situ. If someone on earth were trafficking title to such minerals in a fraudulent, illegal, or unapproved fashion, civil or criminal fraud proceedings might be a good way to enforce whatever private property rights in space regime is created.

  5. Hi Andrew,

    I agree with you that “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.”

    They’ll do more than that at some point. They’re smart enough to know that US customs agents aren’t the only game in town on a planet with 100+ distinct nation states.

    The time will come when they will certainly arrange for any materials collected from orbit to be inspected by customs agents from the EU, Russia, China or even the Isle of Man in the same way that pretty much every other trans-national corporation arranges to function in jurisdictions with favorable tax and legal structures.

    As per your comments about the 1979 Moon Treaty, it’s worth remembering that this treaty has not been ratified by any nation which engages in self-launched manned space exploration or has plans to do so. In fact only a dozen and a half countries altogether have signed or indicated an intent to sign the treaty and it can safely be categorized as a “failed treaty.”

    Certainly the US government doesn’t feel bound by it.

    If you’d like to get some idea of what they’re talking about in my country (Canada) about this issue, then check out “Using Tools from the Mining Industry to Spur Innovation and Grow the Canadian Space Industry” at$file/CanadianSpaceCommerceAssociation-Part2-ChuckBlack.pdf.

  6. Hi Chuck!

    Thanks for your comments! I think you’re right that, at some point, space mining companies will channel the materials they collect in space around the US, in order to find the lowest regulatory and tax regimes. And certainly adoption of schemes used by terrestrial mining and drilling transnational companies makes the most sense; why invent the legal wheel, after all? I believe that, in the near term, the US can use the “carrot” of recognizing and defending private ownership in the materials collected in space to encourage companies like PRI to bring those resources into the US.

    Thanks for the article about applying Canadian terrestrial mining expertise to extraterrestrial mining!

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