July 23, 2004

Upward and Onward

OVER AT SAMIZDATA, Dale Amon has posted some interesting excerpts from court filings in a, well, novel property-law case.

It would appear that Gregory Nemitz, a resident of Carson City, Nev., has laid claim to the asteroid of Eros (Asteroid No. 433), which orbits the Sun at an average distance of some 146 million miles. Mr Nemitz has come up with the idea of setting up a colony on Eros to exploit its mineral wealth -- and if the idea is to work, the developer must have ownership of the rock in its entirety.

(Yes, it is amazing that we allow people to file such lawsuits -- although, as we understand it from Mr Amon, the idea is to force the property-law issue and not the claim. That said, we would note Mr Nemitz's case is now before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after a U.S. District Court slapped it down. Given the Ninth Circuit, we are half-expecting to read in the papers that Mr Nemitz has been awarded ownership not just of Eros, but half the asteroid belt).

Anyway, the Government's defense in this case is that Mr Nemitz cannot own Eros. It cites the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which forbids national Governments from appropriating celestial objects or otherwise making claim to them. Therefore, it reasons, Mr Nemitz is -- to use the legal term -- Shit Out of Luck. Furthermore, it is Most Certainly Not going to pay the $20 parking fee which he charged it for letting the Shoemaker craft land on Eros some years back.

As you can see, Mr Nemitz has been clever in planning all this out. A pity he put the cart before the horse.

For we do fear his plan falls short in a few key areas -- the most important being that he cannot enforce his claim. For that matter, none of the various people who have attempted to claim extraterrestrial land over the years can enforce their claims. This is, quite simply, because they can't get to the properties in question, and no Government has jurisdiction in these areas.

Yet what happens when either or both of those two conditions no longer holds? That to us is the real interesting question.

We would submit a lot of these legal issues will be based -- at least at the outset -- around the old squatters-rights concept. It is true this could lead to a situation one step short of anarchy: if some idiot tries to evict an honest citizen from his moon condo, because of a "title" to the land issued in 1955, the idiot may just get his space helmet filled with buckshot. But it does not have to be that way (and for a lot of examples why, see the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto).

After all, what if a link was made between property-improvement and its titling? We don't see why such a system could not be established in future to deal with land and property claims in outer space, whether through Governments based in space (in 1000 years, they might exist) or through Earth-based Governments which had made the sensible decision to scrap the Outer Space Treaty and open the last frontier up to development.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 23, 2004 09:46 AM | TrackBack

Just a small technical quibble--it matters not that this fellow can't actually get to his asteroid...governments tend to adjudicate property rights over a lot of intangibles (intellectual property being the most obvious case).

I've been reading your blog quite a bit lately--basically, although Norway is nice for postcards, it leaves a little to be desired in the excitement department.

Take care,

Posted by: Cullen at July 27, 2004 04:00 AM


NORWAY? What the devil are you doing in NORWAY? Is that general strike we heard about over with yet?

Anyway, I based my argument on historical example, namely the experience which America had back in the early 19th century. The short version of what happened then was that the Government was forced to legalize squatters' rights over previously-undeveloped property out West, letting those who developed it purchase it for a minimal sum. I think we'd see the same thing in this instance -- and with the AMOUNT of potential real estate out in space, the price would likely be cheap, at least if the only available resource on or under it was dirt.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at July 27, 2004 07:40 PM