Image: Lunar Deed
Lunar Embassy
Mail-order customers who buy property from the Lunar Embassy get an official-looking deed like this one. Legal experts say such deeds are hardly worth the paper they're printed on. Nevertheless, the venture highlights the potential controversies ahead if humans really homestead the moon and Mars.
By Senior Science Writer
updated 2/2/2004 5:32:27 PM ET 2004-02-02T22:32:27

More than 2.5 million people from 180 countries have bought property on the moon and Mars in sales that reached $1 million last year. The scheme is bogus, legal scholars argue, but business is booming, and futurists have been forced to ponder the fate of celestial property rights.

Meanwhile, the "Head Cheese" of the whole shebang asserted last week that his Galactic Government flag will be planted on the moon by the end of this year.

The pronouncements are bold. The revenue is real. And a lunar land grab — however dubious it may be — is well under way.

Most of the buyers are individuals who are convinced that $19.99 plus shipping and handling will secure them a building site on another world. About 1,300 corporations, many hoping for otherworldly tax status, are also said to be among the clients. Sales of Martian real estate have recently begun, and other worlds are also available.

Analysts who say the sales are not on solid legal footing also think it all foretells court battles that loom in the cosmic frontier, especially now that President Bush says we "human beings are headed into the cosmos."

It's also the sort of thing that could lead to the first cosmic warfare.

Big money
The out-of-this-world commerce is conducted mostly over the Internet and orchestrated chiefly by one company, Lunar Embassy, whose founder insists he owns the moon and all the planets in the solar system except Earth.

The claim is considered absurd by several legal analysts, who say a 1967 international treaty forbids ownership of property beyond Earth.

"You should not expect to have paid for any valid legal title to a plot in outer space, just for a nice piece of paper to stick on your wall," says Frans von der Dunk, a space law expert at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Lunar Embassy's founder, Dennis Hope, asserts he's on firm legal ground — regardless of the world in question. He spent $70,000 last year in legal fees to defend his company and chase off competition that he calls copycats. According to other news reports, competing Web sites have been forced to shut down based on copyright violations, not directly because of property ownership claims.

"We're not trying to fool anybody about anything," Hope said. "The properties we sell are as legitimate as any property you buy anywhere on this planet."

At least two competitors disagree.

Lunar Registry does not claim to own the moon. And it says it is "aware that some companies are lying to consumers about their legal rights to sell property on the moon." Yet Lunar Registry has "a program through which you, your family, or your business enterprise can legally claim ownership of property on the moon." Proceeds will be pooled "in order to create the investment capital required to occupy and develop the moon."

Another outfit, called, takes a potty-humor approach to selling parcels of the outer planet with the arguably unfortunate name. The enterprise is serious, however, about accepting your credit card.

Plant the flag
In a telephone interview last week, Hope, the self-proclaimed Head Cheese of the Lunar Embassy, revealed his latest plan to attempt to secure extraterrestrial ownership. The flags of his Lunar Embassy and his nascent Galactic Government will be planted on the moon by the end of 2004, he said.

"We believe it will change the history of this world," Hope said. "Sometime this year, the Lunar Embassy will be on the moon. Our representative will then turn to a video camera and read a prepared statement validating our claim of ownership."

There are no known manned missions currently planned to reach the moon this year or anytime soon. Other space experts expressed serious doubt any such mission would occur. So I asked Hope what spacecraft his company would employ.

"I'm not at liberty to discuss the technical aspects of the craft at this point," he said.

Seeds of cosmic commerce
The idea for selling lunar property came to Dennis Hope in 1980. He recalled the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, which stipulates that no government can own extraterrestrial property. But as Hope says, "it neglected to mention individuals or corporations."

He used that loophole, as he calls it, to snap up to the moon and the eight other planets and their natural satellites in 1980.

Hope filed papers with a U.S. governmental office for claim registries in San Francisco. He then informed the U.N. General Assembly and the governments of Russia and the United States. None responded, and Hope takes that as proof his claim is valid. He followed up with a U.S. copyright registration.

Hope also cites the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, which through 1986 allowed an individual to claim property by occupying and improving it. Yet in some countries, Hope contends, not even occupation is necessary to homestead some land.

"With the chaotic aspect of rules," he said, "we just created our own rules."

Raging discussion
Von der Dunk, the Leiden University law expert, is also co-director of the International Institute of Space Law, or IISL. He said a "discussion is raging" within the IISL as well as the International Astronautical Federation over how to handle claims like Lunar Embassy's.

To clarify the 1967 U.N. treaty, the IISL is working to establish explicit international legal language that would render "null and void" any ownership claim of a celestial body. That document is due out later this year. The language, other scholars say, represents what many think is already codified into international law by years of interpretations of the 1967 treaty.

So legally, where does that leave the sale of extraterrestrial property?

"Whether that means it's fraud and such a claim is null and void under national law would basically be up to any national legal system to determine," von der Dunk said. "It does mean, however, that under international law the U.S. government should unequivocally make clear that these practices are not based on any sound legal premise."

Hope alternately deflects criticism and defends himself vigorously. He says what might sound like anger — he speaks heatedly about his critics — is actually just enthusiasm. In the Frequently Asked Questions on the Lunar Embassy Web site, the first question is, "How do I know this is not a fraud?"

Elsewhere in the FAQ, and on the printed deed a customer receives, Lunar Embassy employs the word "novel" to describe its products. The word was suggest by lawyers 24 years ago, according to the FAQ, to "help avoid any frivolous lawsuits from a foreign country."

(The words "novel" and "novelty" are employed by star-naming businesses as a way to avoid the impression that their sales involve official products.)

Hope brushed off a question about the employment of "novel" as a form of legal defense. "It's just a word," he said, delving into its dictionary definition as describing something new and unusual.

'Wonderfully profitable'
One thing no one argues about is that Lunar Embassy has developed into a "wonderfully profitable program," as the company's promotional materials state in seeking "ambassadors" to serve as sales agents in other countries.

Every day, hundreds of people fork over about $30 each for 1-acre slices of the moon and Mars. (Prices are going up: For roughly the same amount, prior to 2001, you could get 17,700 acres.) The cost includes shipping and handling of a deed, a map, and the lunar or Martian "Constitution and Bill of Rights," all printed on simulated parchment.

With the help of several affiliated Web sites around the world, Lunar Embassy has over the years sold 410 million acres on the moon -- a fraction of what's available. About 1,500 lunar acres are bought each day, Hope said, many in 2- or 3-acre parcels. Revenue is nearly double what it was in 2000.

Business has picked up "tremendously" of late, as it typically does when there are high-profile space missions such as the rovers now on Mars.

Charging for sunlight
In a crafty stunt designed to "expose the phony extraterrestrial real estate industry," British legal scholar Virgiliu Pop declared in 2001 that he owns the sun and can charge the "owners" of other solar system bodies for the solar energy they receive.

Pop has written several papers on space property rights and is a member of the IISL.

"The Lunar Embassy does not own the moon, hence it cannot sell it," Pop said in an e-mail interview. "If you still believe you can actually own the moon by buying it from the Lunar Embassy, then you will have to pay me utilities fees for the sun that I own as much (or as little) as Mr. Hope owns the moon."

One precedent Pop draws on involves the Masai tribe in Africa, which "has a similar legal claim over all the cows in the world, yet in reality, people all over the world continue to buy and sell cattle without involving the Masai. What I dispute here is the 'it is mine because I say so' approach."

A cornerstone of Lunar Embassy's claims — the absence of governmental protest — is irrelevant, Pop argues, because no protest or response was to be expected "with such trivial claim" in light of accepted international law.

Pop further contends that Dennis Hope's quest, which began in 1980, came too late. "A lunar claim was lodged in Chile back in 1953," Pop says, "and a Declaration of Lunar Ownership was issued by the city of Geneva, Ohio, back in 1966."

So why don't governments put a stop to all this?

"Perhaps — and this is my opinion, not the government’s — this is because the government is concerned right now with more important issues," Pop said. "Yet, I hope one day the government will pay attention to the Lunar Embassy’s antics."

Moon squatting
Hope has no patience with legal opinion.

If other disagree with his justifications, "that's their decision," he said. "I don't care."

Meanwhile, his plan to counter other claims, past or present, is to squat. By sending an emissary to the moon, he figures to solidify his ownership rights. When I expressed doubt about his ability to put someone on the lunar surface this year, he said: "If we don't do it, then everything I told you is fabricated." He quickly backtracked. "It isn't fabricated," he said, but rather it would just mean there had been a technical problem.

Image: Trailblazer
An artist's conception shows TransOrbital's Trailblazer probe heading for the moon.
Assuming the Lunar Embassy succeeds at putting people on the moon at some point, governments would surely take notice. Conversely, if President Bush's new space vision leads to the United States setting up a lunar base, as planned, that base would inevitably sit on land that the Lunar Embassy claims to own. What would Hope do?

He said he is "in the process of setting up talks with Bush" to lease to the government 30,000 lunar acres for 200 years.

Hope is crafty about stating things in a manner that lends credibility to his cause. On his Web site, for example, he writes that "the Lunar Embassy entered into a contractual agreement with TransOrbital Inc., to carry our Declaration of Ownership to the Moon along with their mission."

The TranOrbital mission, called Trailblazer, in fact is selling space for documents to anyone with a credit card. TransOrbital's president, Dennis Laurie, said Lunar Embassy has no special arrangement beyond what you, I or anyone can easily make by filling out a form on the TransOrbital Web site.

The Trailblazer mission will not carry humans.

Looming clash?
Short of going to war with the rest of the world, Lunar Embassy's squatting plans might not work, according to Sa'id Mosteshar, a space law expert and principal partner in the law firm Mosteshar Mackenzie, based in San Diego.

Mosteshar says no individual can claim ownership of any piece of space — or Earth — without the support of a nation to defend that right. And, because the 1967 U.N. treaty forbade nations from owning any piece of space, the law simply does not support Lunar Embassy's plans.

Lunar Embassy does not plan to work entirely within terrestrial law anyway.

Hope recently formed a Galactic Government (he is its president) designed to create laws for societies that will eventually colonize the moon and planets. A vote on these laws is to be held soon, he said.

If Hope or other members of the Galactic Government try to settle the moon, "we can only assess the effectiveness of that kind of move by reference to our own system of law," Mosteshar said. "He would have to fight for his rights. Such rights as he might claim would not be recognized here on Earth."

In essence, any person or entity trying to physically settle and govern the moon could start the first space war, if any government or coalition of nations back home decided to challenge the move.

Projecting fantasy
In the end, most legal experts and space policy analysts are confident that buyers of Lunar Embassy plots — or their heirs — will get nothing.

Yet what appears to be an ultimately inevitable argument is in its nascent stages, fueled both by Dennis Hope and by President Bush's recently announced plan to set up a permanent moon base and then send people to Mars.

After all, can the nations of Earth really govern the heavens? And how might current law change when people actually get out there? Might individuals one day purchase suburban land beyond Earth in a legally undisputed manner? And if so, what entity or entities will recognize and protect their title?

Steve Durst is hedging his bets. He's got four deeds to lunar property bought from different sellers. He picked up his first one "with a chuckle" in Berkeley in 1970 from "a woman dressed in a silver moon suit."

As director of the Lunar Enterprise Corporation and editor of Space Age Publishing, Durst does not really think any of the deeds are valid. But he is a "great believer" in the right of individuals to own property on the moon.

"I see them mostly as novelties, but symbolic novelties," he said.

Durst respects Dennis Hope for his marketing prowess and for "doing a great service to the process of space education and commerce and the legal question it raises." Durst also likes Hope as a person, but he does not agree that Hope owns the moon or other planets. Nor does he believe Lunar Embassy will put a person on the lunar surface this year.

"If he's really convinced himself to a high degree that he owns the moon, then that fantasy probably projects itself into other things," like getting a person on the Moon, Durst told me. Perhaps that bold expectation is "no more outlandish than saying he owns the moon," he said.

Black eye
Durst is one of many analysts who think the need for serious discussions about extraterrestrial property rights is growing urgent.

"The concept of property rights in space is important," said Brain Chase, executive director of the National Space Society, which supports the privatization of space exploration. "As we start to settle the solar system … the property rights issue is a critical debate we're going to have to have."

That's not to say Chase is enthusiastic about having a Head Cheese fuel the discussion.

"I'm not sure the Lunar Embassy is the right ambassador for the job," Chase said. He worries that the company's sales of celestial property may give the whole effort to expand space exploration "more of a black eye than anything else."

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