Forty Acres and a Spaceship


Now leasing!

As part of an ongoing discussion at Wired over the need for property rights in space to spur economic development beyond the Earth's surface, Berin Szoka and James Dunstan of TechFreedom agree with arguments advanced by space policy consultant Rand Simberg that private property and entrepreneurship are essential to advancing extraterrestrial exploration. They say, however, that international law forbids the sort of property claims beyond the Earth's surface that Simberg advocates.

Simberg and others argue that Article II of the [1967 Outer Space Treaty] only prohibits national appropriation, leaving individuals free to do whatever they want in space. Well, not so fast. … Launching states are required to ensure that their nationals conduct activities in conformity with the provisions of the Treaty. There is, therefore, no way that the United States could confer the kind of private land grants Simberg proposes.

Instead of unilaterally launching a property rights war with the rest of the world (or even, oddly, renegotiating the treaty), Szoka and Dunstan suggest that entrepreneurs should rely on real and de facto existing property rights.

So what would a truly practical proposal for securing space property rights look like? First, the Outer Space Treaty recognizes full ownership rights in objects and vehicles launched into, or constructed, in space.

Satellites are regularly bought and sold. In 2000, when a private company attempted to lease the Mir Space Station from the Russians, one of us (Dunstan) negotiated the deal — using a standard commercial building lease!

While many international space lawyers once defended the satellite monopoly of Intelsat, an intergovernmental consortium, the rise of PanAmSat in the 1980s clearly established the rights of private companies to operate in space. Similarly, the argument that orbital "slots" could only be allocated for short durations, lest they become "appropriated," has given way to recognition of de facto property rights in orbits.

The authors also see an opening for adapting elements of maritime law for clearing debris and establishing exclusive claims for exploiting space-based resources.

It's an interesting read for those who want to see free enterprise get a toe-hold beyond the planet's surface. Honestly, a true breakthrough in space-based property rights may have to await the Lunar revolution.

NEXT: Ira Stoll on the Relationship Between Taxes and Unemployment

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  1. So, no gambol lockdown in space?

    1. Space: The Final Libertarian Frontier


    3. White Lunarian 2654 hates how you stole the airless and radiation-blasted lands of his un-war-like non-ancestors!

      1. And White Microbe is already pissed about our sending robots to Mars.

  2. When I have time, I’ll RTFA. In the meantime, I’ll speculate that:

    * Rights grants will need to deal with the Commons issue around trash disposal.
    * There is no effective mechanism to deal with rights grants to foreign bodies beyond a homesteader lottery.

  3. Oh, you’ll get your grain shipments all right.

  4. I say land on the Moon, stake your claim, and repudiate the jurisdiction of anyone on Earth to your property.

    1. First come, first served.

    2. and repudiate…by carving a big middle finger icon into the moon’s surface.

    3. That’s fine if you’re self-sufficient. But let’s say you find some way to profitably improve upon an industrial process by taking advantage of the lower-gravity environment (maybe on the moon, or maybe at a Lagrange point), which will inevitably happen. Earth’s sad little governments will block trade with their subjects if you don’t bow before their crowns.

      1. Particularly if you are using materials mined from the moon or asteroids in the manufacturing process. Apparently digging mines into mother Gia is better.

  5. This may well be the coolest thing ever dude. Wow.

  6. First come, first served, indeed.

  7. to see free enterprise get a toe-hold beyond the planet’s surface

    well, it’s place to start

  8. Simon Jester is not impressed!

  9. Can you mix your labor with the land using a robot?

    Self-Replicating Nanobot Land Mixers ‘R’ Us: Whoever churns the moon, earns the moon!?

  10. You can’t own property, man

  11. “Launching states are required to ensure that their nationals conduct activities in conformity with the provisions of the Treaty.”

    All the more reason that we need to get States out of the launching business. If I launch myself, or I pay Elon Musk to launch me, then personal property rights obtain and the Treaty provisions mean nothing to me — as long as I can defend my claim — right?

    1. Not that I agree, but I suspect that the US would still be the “launching state” since they “allowed” you to launch.

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