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Will Lawyers Ever Practice in Outer Space?

By George Khoury, Esq. on November 02, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When the topic of Space Law comes up, some lawyers are bound to roll their eyes, while others will start scanning their memories of which Starship Enterprise crew member could have been a space lawyer. But in reality, right now, most space law is about as exciting as an international patent dispute, or as crazy as crazy gets.

Although we are actually pretty close to having some serious (and cool) legal issues in outer space, until commercial space travel and space tourism really take off (pun intended), space law will likely remain in the provenance of the patent lawyer, legislators, and lobbyists.

Outer Space Intellectual Property

When it comes to patents, even in space, jurisdiction matters. And since jurisdiction in outer space is more wild than the wild wild west ever could have dreamed, issues surrounding research and development in outer space are currently the most pressing. More R&D than ever is being done in outer space, and more private companies than ever before are doing it.

Although patents are generally limited in jurisdiction worldwide to certain countries, the space patent problem is rather similar to international patent infringement problems. It matters less where a product was researched, developed, or manufactured, than where that product is sold or imported.

While the Outer Space Treaty is in desperate need of updating to deal with the emerging technologies we now possess, all of the policy and patent issues are likely to be resolved on Earth, rather than in the forum most non-conveniens. Basically, the big concern is that companies that spend millions or billions on Earth to develop space tech will have their inventions stolen by companies that can manufacture and sell infringing copies of the product in space.

Apart from patent and policy issues, admiralty law might be a close parallel to the direction space law eventually ventures. All outer space related cases could be governed by special rules and properly venued in the Federal District Courts, or perhaps some international space court (hopefully located on the ISS). If communities actually develop in space, the need for local administration of justice will likely become necessary, which means that there will be a need for actual space lawyers.

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