For centuries people have made claims over ownership of the moon. Most of these claims don’t stop at the moon but also extend to other celestial bodies in the universe. It almost seems as though the moon’s ownership comes into question every few years. Over the years, multiple individuals have tried to claim ownership over celestial bodies and tried to capitalise on it.
One of the earliest documented cases regarding the ownership of the moon was in the 1700s. King Frederick the Great bequeathed the moon to a miraculous healer named Aul Jurgens’s until the end of time. In 1996, One of Jurgen’s descendants claimed ownership of the moon but the Institute for Air and Space Law rejected this claim on the basis that the sovereign did not have ownership of the moon in the first place and therefore the descendant’s claim over the celestial body is invalid. Another man named Gregory Nemitz sent an Invoice to NASA claiming a parking fee of $20 upon the touchdown of NEAR Shoemaker Spacecraft in 2001 after filing a claim over the Asteroid, Eros at the Archimedes Institute in 2000.
This paper focuses on the viability of such claims on the moon or any other celestial body in the form of real estate or for the mining of resources with a focus on the case of Dennis Hope
Outer Space Treaty, 1967
Several countries including the US, UK, and USSR ratified the Outer Space Treaty in which Article II prohibits the “national appropriation by claims of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means” of outer space. This includes all celestial bodies. Dennis Hope claims that there exists a loophole in this article as it does not explicitly forbid private organizations from exploiting celestial bodies. According to him, treaties are meant to be binding on nations and not individuals. The lack of clarity in the treaty has raised various questions regarding the legal definitions of celestial bodies or outer space. As a result of this, private appropriation of some of the asteroids and comets can be allowed because these asteroids or comets do not fall within the accepted legal definition of celestial bodies.
However, it has been argued that if a state cannot appropriate the celestial bodies neither can the nationals without any evidence that the private entity is stronger than the sovereign itself. Also, without the sovereign, the property rights cannot survive and if the state supports the private party with the appropriation then the appropriation is on a national level. Frans von der Dunk is of the opinion that if the US does not take action against those individuals who are trying to sell pieces of the moon, it would be violating the Outer Space Treaty according to which national sovereignty is not applicable in space.
There have been some changes and additions made to the Outer Space Law Treaty, 1967. One of the additions mentions the extraction of non-recurring resources from outer space. The view expressed was that a group should be established for exploration, utilization, and exploration of resources in space as an “open-ended intergovernmental group”. The objective of this group is to consult and negotiate in order to arrive at draft articles that are to be used as a universal treaty establishing an international framework that is legally binding for the exploitation, exploration, and utilization of space.
These changes in regulations are imperative. There are still many unanswered questions, but the new additions are a step towards achieving the clarity that is much needed.
The most profitable ventures that can come out of the ownership of celestial bodies are real estate and the mining of resources. One of the most profitable businesses in lunar property was that of Dennis Hope. He registered the moon in San Francisco County office claiming that he is now to be revered as the Head Cheese as he is the ruler of the Lighted Luiner Surface. He registered a business called the Lunar Embassy and then sent a $55,000 littering and storage bill to the US, USSR, and the United Nations along with a declaration. And after this declaration, he started selling land by the acre. As of 2012, he claims to have sold the lunar property to 3.7 million people in 181 countries and these people include people from Hollywood, royalty from 6 countries, astronauts, and also American Presidents, all at $20 each. This is not all he did, he also started selling domain names, moons of other planets and those moons which exist in the outer solar system.
As per the Lunar Embassy, Hope’s claim is based on Old American Law and is alleged to be built on the US Homeland Act, 1862.ince the Americans were the first to walk on the moon and plant a flag, if anyone owns the lunar property it is the US. However, as per the Outer Space Treaty, 1967 nobody can own the moon.
One aspect of this case that came to light was the fact that the Lunar Deeds that were sold by the Lunar Embassy were novelty gifts making them animus jocandi which translates to “for fun only”. Other examples of animus jocandi would be hundred-dollar bills, passports to the moon, etc. These items are legal as long as they are used merely for fun and not to challenge the authorities.
At one point the question of ownership arose between Jurgens and Hope. This dispute was based on whether Jurgens had the original claim over the moon as his family was amongst the first people to have owned it. However, Jurgens acknowledged that this dispute shouldn’t be taken seriously because King Frederick’s gift may not have been earnest.
Tthe Lunar Embassy claims that being a novelty gift does not reduce the value of the purchased property because all the deeds are registered at the Embassy’s database. However, the embassy could not be more wrong. Novelty gifts do reduce the value of the property. It was pointed out by Brian Welch who was the news chief of NASA that the deeds were worthless, and this is one of the main reasons why Caveat emptor, meaning buyer beware, exists. The Lunar Embassy boasts to have sold lunar properties to astronauts of the likes of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Buzz Aldrin pointed out that some people want a certificate proving ownership of a property on the moon, but they will get nothing more than a piece of paper. Aldrin’s statement was then furthered by space lawyer Frans von der Dunk, who called this “buying of nice paper” and hollow claims at best. Further nce the contracts made by the Lunar Embassy are void ab initio as it was fraudulent, there is no need for them to be explicitly declared as void. The reason for the contract to be void ab initio is that no individual’s rights should be affected by the contract, may it be a party or a stranger.
Law is absent regarding the ability of individuals to lay claim on celestial bodies and sell the property or other resources from outer space. However, silent law does not mean no law. There are treaty regulations in place regarding the treatment of extraterrestrial property rights. Therefore, Public International Law is being read between the lines and analyses are being drawn to concur with the implications of the said law on the private sphere.
There were questions raised by the Lunar Deed holders regarding the declaration of property on their tax forms. The Lunar Embassy then claimed that there is no need to hide this from the government but since the value of the property is only $20, it is too frivolous for one for one to be taken to court about it. According to Hope’s accountant, he owns property worth $760 trillion. If the authorities cared enough to tax him, it would be at an amount that would easily render him bankrupt. This would also allow the authorities to confiscate all property owned by him, that is if he can legally prove that he is the owner of celestial bodies which is unlikely.
As stated by Virgiliu Pop who is a space lawyer focused in the area of extraterrestrial property rights. “Intending to own and possess land is not enough. One should have such possession.” Hope cannot own the moon merely because he wishes to. He does not meet the element of actual possession of the property. This is the same for everybody who has made claims over lunar property.
There is no clear answer surrounding whether a private entity can claim ownership ofextraterrestrial property as there has been no clear-cut law in place. But even if Hope manages to get the papers on the moon and even if traveling into space becomes a norm- for his claims to be considered, the state will have to accept and recognize his ownership which will again make the claim illegal as no nation is allowed to appropriate extraterritorial property.
There is an urgent need for clearer laws to be formulated to prevent people like Hope from exploiting ordinary citizens and convincing them that they are buying land on the moon for future generations of their families. It may seem like a measly $20 per person but he has sold property deeds to millions of people with no obvious consequences. The state should have the responsibility to ensure that such misrepresentation does not happen. The deeds being sold are not sold under the pretense of novelty gifts, which would legalise everything that Hope has done, but instead, he intends to sell properties on the moon.
There is a slow progression towards the formulation of regulations for extraterrestrial resources. It is understood that asteroids, planets etc. hold enough wealth to make every human on earth a billionaire. There is an ample number of resources in space that private individuals are waiting to exploit but in order to maintain the understanding that celestial bodies cannot be appropriated by any nation, there needs to be a strict regulation in place. The Legal Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, 2019 was of the view that using nonrenewable resources from outer space is being done for two reasons, commercial purposes or exploration. They are yet to provide better and more concrete guidelines for them, but it is acknowledged that neither exploration nor exploitation can take place by one country without consulting with other countries.
There is a certain greed and ambition that a human seems to have to own not only the earth but also the rest of the universe. However, owning something is pointless if it cannot be sold. Why own the moon if you cannot sell it? But we are yet to find a definitive answer on whether a single person can own the moon or any other celestial body in outer space.
Nandini Agarwal is a fourth year law student at OP Jindal Global University pursuing B.A.LL.B. She had keen interest in the subjects of Alternate Dispute Resolution, Child Rights and Intellectual Property Rights along with art and anything animated.