Can You Buy Land on the Moon?

Logo for Legal Crap My Kids Ask MeMax asked this question one night when there was a full moon. I immediately said no, then told him I would check to make sure. I wasn’t exactly sure that some rogue country like North Korea had claimed the moon or any other planets, stars, or celestial real estate.

After checking it out, the answer is still no. Well, let’s say it is a solid no with only slight complications.

The Outer Space Treaty

First, no country may claim ownership or sovereignty over the moon or other celestial bodies. Under Article II of the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (thankfully known more concisely as the “Outer Space Treaty”):

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

Article VI also states that the parties to the treaty:

shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities.

But, as some space lawyers have argued (yes, space lawyers are out there), Article II of the treaty applies only to national appropriation—something akin to “I hereby claim this here rock in the name of the United States of America.” Shortly after ratification of the Outer Space Treaty, one space law scholar wrote that:

the Treaty in its present form appears to contain no prohibition regarding individual appropriation or acquisition by a private association or an international organization, even if other than the United Nations. Thus, at present, an individual acting on his own behalf or on behalf of another individual or a private association or an international organization could lawfully appropriate any part of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies.

And that’ s the rub. As many lunar land speculators suggest, just because a fancy international UN “Outer Space” treaty says one thing does not mean common earth-bound mortals or corporations like ourselves are prohibited from claiming individual ownership of, say, the Tycho crater, or maybe a nice seaside parcel along the Sea of Vapors.

Deeds to the Moon and Space

Child's drawing of earth and moon and rocketToday, dozens of online outfits sell “deeds” to lunar property. And not only lunar property, but property on other celestial bodies, including Mars, Venus, Mercury, and IO, one of the 67 confirmed moons orbiting Jupiter. Prices vary, but generally a single acre on any of them will set you back about twenty bucks.

The Lunar Embassy appears to be one of the “leading” online lunar real estate agencies in the world, with franchise opportunities all over the planet. It claims on its website that it has sold more than 300 million acres on the moon, all plotted by quadrant and sold for about $20 to $25 per acre. Large city, country, or “continent” plats, however, are cheaper by the acre (PDF) and sold in units of thousands or millions of acres—and can be financed!

More recently, the Lunar Embassy’s owner, Dennis Hope, said in this New York Times video that his company has sold more than 600 million acres of land on the moon and is currently deeding out land at the rate of 200 acres per day. He also claims his agency has more than 5.7 million individual owners of land, each owner averaging ownership 2.2 properties across the galaxy. All the sales, he says, are “as real as any other properties you can buy on earth.”

Hold on.

That’s 6 to 12 billion dollars worth of lunar land, all sold out of a storefront Century 21 real estate office in California. And that doesn’t even count lots being sold on Mars, Venus, or IO. He’s sold twelve billion dollars worth of uninhabitable space craters? An amount that equals the initial public value of Twitter? Hmmm.

Lunar Land Legalities

Like Lunar Embassy, all the celestial real estate agencies will happily sell you a deed to an acre on the moon. But if you receive a deed to a lunar crater, do you own that part of the moon? No. You own a piece of paper. That’s it. And that’s about as good as owning a piece of paper that says you own land on Jupiter or Venus—-or a Florida swamp for that matter.

What counts is under what authority the deed purports to transfer the property to you. How did the person or entity appropriate the land or come into possession of it in order to sell it to you, at least sell it to you so that you own it—actually own the land—legally?

In Lunar Embassy’s case, the owner in 1980 just claimed the moon as his. But so did a number of people before him, to wit:

  • a Chilean poet in 1954, who registered his moon property with Chilean authorities and allegedly received an official deed for his efforts;
  • a former planetarium director in 1955, who offered for sale a “General Quitclaim Deed to One Acre of Land on the Moon (Northeast Quadrant),” in the Copernicus crater;
  • Oklahoma City, which annexed all 9 billion acres of the moon in 1965 and turned them over to the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation as a fundraising device;
  • thirty-five citizens of Geneva, Ohio, who published their “Declaration of Lunar Ownership” in 1966, from which they declared their “full possession and complete responsibility” over the moon, which included selling plots of 100 acres each and renting out parts of the moon to those who wanted to use the land;

Some if not all of these were jokes, but they all have in common what any moon speculator cites as the source of lunar land ownership: a bold outright claim that the person simply owns it.

Sure, the Lunar Embassy says it filed a “copyright for the sale of the moon,” that makes no legal sense. Lunar Embassy, through Dennis Hope, did register a trademark for the name Lunar Embassy in 2000, but the US Trademark office, last time I looked, was not in the business of approving real estate sales, whether on Earth or Pluto. Besides, the trademark appears to have been cancelled in 2006.

Take Nemitz v. United States, in which Gregory Nimitz claimed ownership to  near-Earth Asteroid 433 Eros simply by registering a claim to it on a website and filing a UCC financing statement in California. When NASA sent its NEAR Shoemaker probe to Eros, Nemitz sent out a bill for “storage/parking fees” in the amount of $20, “per earth century.” The US State Department denied the claim and NASA refused to pay up. Nemitz then sued in federal district court, which promptly threw the case out, stating that Nemitz had failed to make a cognizable claim of ownership to the Eros asteroid. The fact that he simply registered ownership to 433 Eros on a website and filed a UCC financing statement gave him no inherent rights at all to own the asteroid.

Homesteading the Moon

Lunar Embassy also explains on its website that:

under laws dating back to early US settlers, it is possible to stake a claim for land that has been surveyed by registering with the US Office of Claim Registries. In 1980, that is exactly what Dennis Hope did for land on the Moon as he established the Lunar Embassy to parcel and sell documented acres. The Lunar Embassy was obligated to inform the General Assembly of the United Nations, the US Government, and the Russian Government in writing of the claim and legal intent to sell extraterrestrial properties. These governing bodies had several years in which to contest the claim and they never did. This allowed Mr. Hope to take the next step and copyright with the US Copyright Registry Office and begin selling actual deeds for the land on the Moon.

So, looking back at the laws of the early US settlers, Lunar Embassy can really only mean the Homestead Act of 1862. That act allowed individuals (who had not taken up arms against the US) to obtain land at little or no cost as long as they filed an application, improved the land, and filed for a deed of title—-plus lived on the land for at least five years, during which improvements were made.

Hardly something that could be done on the moon, at least today.

Plus, it was under the authority of the United States that the homesteaders claimed their land. And it was the United States and its constituent states that upheld or denied any land claims. Presumably, the same authority would need to be present in order  for anyone “homesteading” lunar or celestial property to be deemed the legal owner. That would take—in the case of the moon—a sovereign nation enforcing one of its citizen’s property rights to appropriate part of the moon. And that’s not allowed under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Lots of Animus, No Corpus

As one Romanian space lawyer has noted, Lunar Embassy and other extra-terrestrial real estate agents have lots of animus but no required corpus. In non-legalistic English, that means you can certainly intend and shout out to the world that you own the moon, but you must also exhibit some control over that property—a flag planted, a demarcation, some appropriation of the land—to complete the two basic requirements of legal possession. And no one, save of course twelve US astronauts, has ever set foot on the moon, let alone any other celestial bodies now listed for sale.

As Philip McDougal, an associate legal officer for the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, said in 2000 about the proliferation of lunar land ownership:

I can tell everyone I own the Crown Jewels, set up a website on it and write to the Queen telling her they were no longer her property. Just because she doesn’t write back doesn’t mean she is acquiescing to it.

So, yes, you can intend to own the moon, you can even “buy” land on the moon and receive a deed in the mail to commemorate your purchase. But it does not mean the deed is worth anything other than the paper it’s written on—or that you, as holder of the deed, actually own a piece of the moon. You don’t. After all, written in small print on each of the Lunar Embassy deeds is a copyright and the notation “Novel Gift.”

Gregory Luce is the editor of Bitter Lawyer. He creates stuff and writes various columns, including Legal Crap My Kids Ask Me, Ask a Futurist, and Postcards from Lawyers.

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