The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing is a good opportunity to reflect on the impact of space exploration on technology, on legal protection of technology and on other legal aspects of space exploration.

The space race, which took place principally between the 1950s and the 1970s, provided the stimulus for significant technological advances. Since then, we have seen notable progress in numerous areas: civil and military telecommunications, propulsion systems, meteorology, Earth observation, mapping, etc. There have also been important scientific experiments with practical applications for our everyday lives. 

Mobile telephones (and their various features) are an example of how technology initially used in the field of space exploration has entered the domestic sphere. Moreover, the Moon missions and use by astronauts helped to popularise existing products, such as Velcro, and materials, such as Teflon.

Both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have technology transfer programmes which enable them to market their patents and technologies in the private sector and which have given rise to numerous start-up companies. Indeed, many of the objects and technologies that we habitually use originate from space-related technology protected by different patents.

Most of this technology, while it has been used in space, was developed and tested here on Earth, and can therefore be protected under patent legislation. But what if an invention has been created in space, for example, on the International Space Station (ISS)? 

The Outer Space Treaty of 27 January 1967, which represents the basic legal framework of international space law, provides the legal basis for exploration and use of outer space. The treaty establishes that outer space shall be free for scientific research, and that the countries that are parties to the treaty shall provide and foster international cooperation in that research.

The ISS is an example of how it has been possible to carry out joint projects with positive results through international cooperation.

The ISS is governed by an agreement concerning cooperation on the Civil International Space Station (the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement of 1998), signed by the USA, Russia, Japan, Canada and the Member States of the ESA. In this agreement, it is stated that the ISS is made up of different modules belonging to different states, that each state has jurisdiction over its own module and, therefore, that its patent laws would be applicable to its module. The ISS system could serve as a model for future scientific space missions; for example, there are various projects on the horizon, such as the Mars missions or the return to the Moon, which have once again placed space exploration in the media spotlight.

Furthermore, the advent of new space activities (such as the first steps in space tourism, which has already made its way to the ISS), has led some countries to consider how to regulate such activities to bring them into line with international law.

Moreover, it is well known that patents are rights with a territorial scope. Therefore, in theory, conflicts could arise when a spacecraft of one country uses launch platforms or other facilities that are normally found in other countries with more favourable conditions. However, many national patent laws, influenced by Article 5ter of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, provide for exceptions stipulating that the holder of a patent may not assert its exclusive rights against third parties in the case of aircraft authorized to enter a territory, with regard to possible claims concerning parts, accessories, procedures, etc. that might infringe patents in force in that territory, thereby resolving the issue.

Space law is currently regulated by the Vienna-based United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which is responsible for implementing the space-related decisions of the United Nations General Assembly and keeping a record of objects launched into space.

It is impossible to imagine the world as it is today without space exploration. In 2069, the centenary year of the Moon landing, our daily lives will surely have been greatly transformed, largely thanks to technological advances in the space sector.

So, we must continue to make progress in space exploration and in the legal aspects of space exploration, in order to continue contributing to making life easier here on Earth.

Article originally published in Cinco Días
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