Space Law: The Commercialization of Space and its Patents

On September 12, 1962, almost 4 years after the Russians successfully launched their manned satellite Sputnik into earth’s orbit, President John F. Kennedy declared “We choose to go to the moon”. This speech launched the United States and Russian into a 17 year space race. While both nations pushed themselves to prove their scientific superiority, it became clear that legislation would be needed to mediate actions in the space surrounding our planet and its celestial bodies.

The UN took precedent in guiding this legislation and established the United Nations Committee on apollo 11the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. In 1979 the Moon Treaty was signed as the first piece of legislation to tackle the question of “who owns space”. The treaty states that “All activities on the moon, including its exploration and use, shall be carried out in accordance with international law, in particular the Charter of the United Nations…”.



As the “battle for space” began to calm down, plans for a collaborative space station were beginning to formulate. In 1998 the first piece of the International Space Station was launched into orbit. Its purpose was for scientific research and discovery and corporation between nations. Its current members include the United States, Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation, and the European Space Agency. With potential for scientific discoveries and innovative solutions, the United Nations negotiated the 1998 Agreement; which appoints NASA as head coordinator of activities on the station and appoints each nation jurisdiction over its own ISS constructed piece. The agreement also includes mention of intellectual property and possible prosecution for violation of ISSthese terms.

Current law regarding intellectual property is governed by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. This legislation allows the discoverer to maintain intellectual property rights as long as experiments and procedures are approved by NASA. These contracts allow organizations to profit from their discoveries as long as these discoveries are also shared in completion with NASA with the potential for further use.

This system corresponds to the initial purpose of the ISS as a collaborative government research lab. Strict regulation on intellectual property protects the integrity of what the ISS stands for and helps prevent from government corruption But in recent years budget cuts and redirection of government spending has left NASA with the need to obtain technology from other resources. In the last year NASA awarded both SpaceX and Boeing contracts making them responsible for transportation of ISS crews. Private industry is the future of the space industry; however, incentivizing innovation will be crucial in fueling this push.

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Patent Problems:

Zero Gravity Solutions Inc is one company that is conducting research in the international space station for commercial purposes. Some of their most promising research is in microgravity planting, an industry already riddled with controversy over the ability to patent living organisms. Under terrestrial law, Zero Gravity would have rights to their plant patents for 20 years at moment of discovery. However according to space law, Zero Gravity Solutions only have a patents protecting them for 5 years. “It could take five years of research to get to the point where you have something you can patent,”states Richard Godwin of Zero Gravity Solutions. Lines can also be blurred when getting to the details each discovery. Some discoveries are made in space, where space law takes precedent. The confusion begins when this data is either transmitted back to earth or experiments are transported back to earth. Although the majority of an experiment took place in space, does space law still govern if the data is complied on the ground?

There is now a push for commercial companies to own exclusive rights of their discoveries and to extend patent rights past the 5 year mark. There is proposed legislation by NASA to solve this problem by providing commercial companies exclusive rights but still also complying to NASA standards.

Although this is a step in the right direction, there is still opposition to NASA being involved in intellectual property rights at all. Capitalism purists believe that there should be no government involvement in private industry. Government standards will become less relevant as private industry paves it own path into Earth’s orbit.

In this transitional period between government funded space exploration and commercialization of space, I believe it is hard to write a definitive law in regards to intellectual property in space. Terrestrial laws will constantly be disputed between the international community since space and celestial bodies are not “owned” by one particular power. I think a solution lies in the creation of an international extraterrestrial patent filing system. Instead of conforming to NASA regulations, there should be an international committee responsible for the filing of space patents. Just like the Federation found in StarTrek, no one government entity should be responsible for space. The moral responsibility of space travel and space discovery is placed on all of humanity; individual governments should not be allowed to “own” pieces of the final frontier.

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1. Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other Celestial Bodies

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs , 12/18/79, 04/14/15

2. The Commercialization of Space: Selling the Final Frontier

Ginger Christ, Industry Week, 10/31/14, 04/14/15

3. An Act (2010), Section 403

NASA, 10/11/10, 04/14/15

4. US Intellectual Property Rules Hinder Space Station Research

Debra Werner, Space News, 11/27/13, 04/14/15



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