MARS4 Metaverse, NFTs, and the Future of Simulated Space Property Rights

Dr. Shouvik Kumar Guha*


Keywords:   Blockchain – Cryptocurrency – Outer space – Property rights

The usage of outer space resources is currently subjected to the restrictions imposed by international instruments like the Outer Space Treaty, 1967[1]. In particular, Article II prohibits national appropriation of the outer space or any celestial body by any means including use and occupation, which ensures that no State can lay claim to property rights to the space or such bodies, nor prevent any other State from using the same. In addition, Article I of the Treaty addresses the exploration and use of the outer space along with right of access, Article VI requires every State to authorize and supervise all activities by its nationals in the outer space and shoulder responsibility for the same, and Articles IX Article XI mandates the States to keep the public, other States, the global scientific community, and the UN Secretary General informed of all their space-related activities, especially the ones that may interfere with peaceful use of space by other States. The application of these provisions towards the development of a property rights framework for the outer space is fraught with debates. Instances of such debates include questions like whether the principle of non-appropriation referred to in the Treaty may translate into restrictions if not outright prohibition of ownership of property rights in space, whether provisions like Article II apply to only space or also the natural resources occurring in it, whether such provisions impose any obligation on the private parties too apart from States, and whether the States themselves being deprived of appropriation power, can in reality validate any property rights claimed by their nationals in space.[2] In addition to the Treaty, the Moon Agreement, 1979[3] and recent initiatives like the Artemis Accords also bear relevance to this evolving discussion on property rights and resource usage in outer space.

Technology seems now all set to add further layers of complexity to this already complicated debate in international law. The case of the MARS4 project serves as a prime example. The blockchain project involves creating a simulated metaverse ecosystem that has been modeled on the planet Mars (data obtained from the 3D Martian Model available in the NASA database).[4] The mars4.me virtual reality platform will allow the users to experience identical planetary conditions in the metaverse. They will also be able to obtain terrestrial rights over the simulated Martian property and develop, terraform and customize such property at their discretion. Further, the owners of such property can mint exclusive Non-Fungible Tokens or NFTs that will draw upon the value of the property owned by them in the metaverse; ownership of such Mars Land NFTs (currently 99888 pieces in existence) will also generate a stream of passive income for them within the metaverse.[5] The income will be in the form of MARS$, the Ethereum cryptocurrency (Standard E) network-based currency that can in turn be used for trading and minting more NFTs within the metaverse; further, as the demand for participation in the project increases, so will the demand for NFTs and by extension, demand for this currency, which can then be traded in exchange for conventional currencies in the real world. These NFTs are therefore meant to serve both as evidence of ownership of virtual land, as well as a means of investment within the MARS4 platform. The currency is already available for purchase on cryptocurrency exchanges like SushiSwap and Bittrex, and the NFTs are going to be available for purchase from January 2022 onward.

The twin tokenomics and token redistribution (MARS$ and Mars Land NFTs) and the principles of gamification (application of elements of game design and game principles of task-based rewards to non-game scenarios including systems, organizations and services) collectively form the distinct characteristics of this entire project.[6] The project also has supposed long-term goals such as to ensure that the NFT-owners via a decentralized autonomous organization will be able to eventually control the decision-making process for the entire virtual platform, and that a foundation is established from the proceeds of the project, which will have the resources to fund space-related startups in the initial stage.

While the NFT boom is currently being perceived all across the global financial market, there are several emerging legal concerns surrounding their use[7], including the lack of accompanying intellectual property rights, the risks involved in the trading of NFTs and fractionalized NFTs that are yet to receive regulatory global recognition as valid securities (registered or otherwise), the possibility of application of anti-money laundering regulations to NFT transactions and resulting lawsuits[8], issues related to privacy and data safeguarding, possibility of reneging on royalty payments by shifting the NFT to different jurisdiction/market via digi-wallets, providing for estate and sequel planning for NFTs based on domestic laws, taxation concerns and many others. All of these regulatory concerns undoubtedly hold pertinence with regard to the MARS4 project too, as do the respective stances adopted by the multiple national regimes about applied blockchain technology and cryptocurrency.

However, this post is meant to consider the status of the project and the property rights being offered by it in the context of the outer space and celestial bodies and related property regime as envisaged under international law. While Mars is a celestial body that should fall within the ambit of the non-appropriation principle[9], the simulated version of the planet in the form of virtual reality is arguably located on Earth itself. Given the oft-vague provisions of the Outer Space Treaty insofar as even traditional property rights in outer space are concerned, and the lack of popular ratification of other relevant existing instruments like the Moon Agreement, the rights to own land in celestial bodies and to use their natural resources are contentious at best at this stage. While the power to access, use, and dispose of resources occurring in space and such bodies is not notionally against the principles that the Outer Space Treaty stands for, it is a matter of fact that the Treaty had never been meant to usher in a stable property rights regime.[10] With technological advancements disrupting even well-established legal regimes across multiple spheres, it is unsurprising that the existing space law regime appears to be considerably unprepared to deal with property rights leveraging space-based resources like the MARS4 project is purporting to do. While the broad acceptance of the Outer Space Treaty principles by State Parties have led to creation of customary law and practices[11], it becomes increasingly clear with developments like this project that predictable property rights in or related to outer space is far in the making at this juncture of international law. However, one must also acknowledge that through persistent efforts, occasional breakthroughs have been possible in the past such as the recognition of the first reasonable user principle in relation to geostationary orbit usage and according protection to such users from subsequent harmful interference via regulations of the International Telecommunications Union.

In addition, the debate as to whether virtual reality based on space objects and resources should at all be governed under the umbrella of outer space law is very much a continuing one. One may even argue that the existence of the MARS4 project does not in any way preclude other private entities establishing identical or similar metaverses about the same or other celestial bodies (assuming they get the necessary licenses to use the relevant celestial data and models) –this would make such property rights and their underlying value at least partially non-exclusive and therefore render their enjoyment non-adverse to concepts such as non-appropriation and the common heritage of mankind. While the days of Robert C. Coles and his Interplanetary Development Corporation, or Dennis Hope and his Lunar Embassy Commission selling land rights on the moon are now long past, those instances clearly taught us valuable lessons about the ambiguity and lack of predictability of the space law regime dealing with individual claims of ownership of the outer space and celestial bodies. One hopes that armed with such lessons, the legal regime applicable to the governance of outer space will proceed to evolve in an organic manner and transform possibly disruptive technological growth as evidenced by the MARS4 project into events enabling such evolution and growth.


References:

* Assistant Professor (Senior Scale), The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences

[1] The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 1967.

[2] Paul Whitfield-Jones, ‘One Small Step for Property Rights in Outer Space?’, available at <https://www.mayerbrown.com/en/perspectives-events/publications/2020/05/one-small-step-for-property-rights-in-outer-space&gt; last visited 26 October 2021.

[3] The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 1979.

[4] Adria Parcerisas Albés, ‘MARS4: First NFT Revenue Generation in the Universe’, available at <https://medium.datadriveninvestor.com/mars4-first-nft-revenue-generation-in-the-universe-668b26a481db&gt; last visited 26 October 2021.

[5] Id.

[6] Prabhjote Gill, ‘This Ethereum-based metaverse is letting crypto fans own land on the Red Planet, even though international space laws would disagree’, available at <https://www.businessinsider.in/investment/news/crypto-fans-can-now-own-land-on-mars-even-though-international-space-laws-would-disagree/articleshow/87188733.cms&gt; last visited 26 October 2021.

[7] OpenGeeksLab, ‘9 Legal Issues That Stand Behind NFTs’, available at <https://opengeekslab.com/blog/legal-issues-nfts/&gt; last visited on 26 October 2021.

[8] Mention may be in this instance of the Dapper Labs Complaint in New York, available at <https://www.scribd.com/document/507902741/Dapper-Labs-Complaint>last visited 26 October 2021.

[9] Thomas E. Hart, ‘Jurisdiction on Mars’, available at <https://journals.library.columbia.edu/index.php/stlr/blog/view/298&gt; last visited 26 October 2021.

[10] Kurt Anderson Baca, ‘Property Rights in Outer Space’, Journal of Air Law and Commerce, Volume 58, Issue 4, 1993, pp. 1041-1085.

[11] Alan Wasser, ‘Space Settlements, Property Rights, and International Law: Could a Lunar Settlement Claim the Lunar Real Estate It Needs to Survive?’, Journal of Air Law and Commerce, Volume 73, Issue 1, 2008, pp. 37-73.

Space Travel: Select Legal Issues

 G. S. Sachdeva*

Key words: Dennis Tito – G-factor – Planetary habitation – Pollution – Volenti non fit injuria

Branson and Bezos, in maiden commercial flights of their respective enterprises, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, have ushered in an era of commercial space travel, transportation and tourism. This development offers an opportunity to tariff-paying passengers for a trip of thrill, pleasure, recreation or entertainment. Much of the world clapped at the milestones in pride, exultation and enthusiasm but ‘two’ swallows do not make spring. In order to become a viable operational transportation system with public offer of tariffed-travel service open to all, without demur or discrimination, and with competitive options and choices, space carriers would need to introduce regular space flights with fixed time-schedules. Occasional charters or “Inspiration” flights do not qualify as commercial operations or public service. Further, assured standards of passenger safety are another public concern and need institutionalisation of an integrated system of space traffic management and space situational environment. Thus, it seems a tall order, which as yet fails to fit, though implementable in the near future.

Further, the passengers of these two trips are not the first commercial space travellers. In fact, the very first fare-paying space-passenger was Dennis Tito in 2001, who believably, paid millions of dollars for a genuine space trip arranged by Roscosmos and stayed at the Soviet quarters of ISS for one week. Nevertheless, this oncoming seems obvious and imminent. Even, the cost of ticket per passenger is likely to reduce progressively with competition from Boeing, Space X, Orion Span, Bigelow and others. Hopefully, the tariff may become an economical bargain to fit within common person’s finances and dream.

Commercial operational travel in space may soon expand to space tourism with orbiting resorts for an exhilarating experience, hospitalityon celestial bodies for ‘stay-cationing’ for joy and ego-boost and planetary habitations[1] for permanent emigration. The future scenario limned here is no oneiric vision but a millennial reality. Interested tourists, space enthusiasts and one-way emigrees have already queued up for booking and are only waiting for the opportune time and regular space travel to become operational.

The space carriers are advertising a life-time experience full of excitement and unique pleasures. The promised thrills relate to floating in micro-gravity, honey-mooning in space, a view of the mother earth in cosmic perspective, a spectacle of universe in lumiere splendour and many more. With the anticipation and elation of space travel, a passenger may ignore some attendant problems and subsequent hassles which should be clearly understood before the actual travel. Select responsibilities are discussed here.

A Caveat for Space Passenger

First, bodily health and mental fitness are important. Space travellers, beware! Space travel is no bullock-cart ride nor is the space capsule commodious enough for desired comfort. Therefore, space travel requires the highest standards of physique, mental agility and psychological preparedness for a unique yet a hard trip of endurance. Space travel involves inconvenience of cramped physical spaces with claustrophobic environment which may be difficult to withstand. Further, space travel entails spiralling effect, high velocity impact and repercussions of high G-factor which may cause bodily discomfort, pain in muscles, blood-rushing, etc. Apart from headache or giddiness, vomiting may also occur.[2]

In order to get used to such inconvenient and never-experienced conditions, one may require training in simulator-capsule creating launch parameters and zero-gravity environment for practice in floating techniques and to get ‘habitualised’ to unaccustomed effects of space travel. In the past, a few trainee astronauts have been declared unfit for medical reasons. Similar rejection and refusal for space flight, in medical screening or during training, should be no surprise for fare-paying passengers, nor constitute a cause for litigation.

Second important aspect of personal responsibility pertains to scrutiny of contract for space travel for liability clauses in the event of an injury to or death of the passenger. In such risky and hazardous flights, the commercial carriers tend to contract out most of their liability under legal maxims of volenti non fit injuria or non cogit ad impossibilia or abundanti cautela, and others. The respective meanings of these are that in voluntary acceptance of the known risk, injury is not admissible; that it was humanly impossible to avert the event; that enough care and caution had been taken to avoid the accident. This may need consultation from a lawyer whose professional examination and advice will be worth the effort and expenditure. However, standardisation of the space travel contract may be expected on the lines of the Warsaw Convention, 1929[3], relating to commercial aviation.

Third caveat is that the space passenger would find it well-nigh impossible to gather factual evidence of the accident or negligence of the carrier for the plaint. And in law, it is important to establish a fault, neglect or failing to be entitled to a claim of compensation. In fast moving machines and events, even eye witnesses may falter in recapitulating the precise sequence of events. More so, wreckage is almost always protected and secured by investigation authorities to obviate tampering by vested interests. Therefore, the space contract should include the evidentiary principle of res ipsa loquitur to shift the burden for fool-proof defence on the carrier. This is now an established doctrine in Air Law.

A Word of Caution

The excitement of oncoming space travel is genuine and the operators claim of long queues for sub-orbital flights.Reliable projections estimate that the number of commercial flights may increase from 10-a-year to about 360 annually in a decade. Possibly, with increasing number of space-enthusiasts and competing carriers, these expectations may be surpassed much sooner.

However, scientists subdue this exultation with a serious woe of pollution of the atmosphere by burnt solid fuels from rocket exhausts. Their despondence increases because hybrid fuels, liquid and solid, have also revealed no major drop in the pollution level. The emitted particles, howsoever, small in size and light in weight, tend to stay put, almost in situ, for long periods. In the 1990’s, research was conducted, by Rosenlof with teams from NOAA, NASA and the US Air Force, on pollution by Shuttle launches. Studies revealed presence of chlorine emissions from launch rockets and their chemical reaction showed adverse influence on ozone reserves. Regrettably, there has not been significant break-through in safe fuels, and rockets generating ozone-damaging substances are still in use as work-horses.

It is conceded that the studies conducted so far have been preliminary in scope, limited in time and localised over Florida necessitating more empirical data collection and analysis. Further no such studies seem to have been undertaken by Russia or China, at least not in public domain.Nevertheless, existing results indicate that atmosphere and stratosphere are undergoing alteration in their character and content yielding strong hints at adverse changes in global climate and weather patterns. As a result, the eco-system of total atmosphere seems vulnerable and at risk as revealed by ground reality.

World Meteorological Organisation has already observed widening of the ozone holes and indicated at the possibility of creating new such holes near space-ports.It has, accordingly, declared rockets as a potential concern and future threat to the well-being of mankind. This calls for dedicated research on less-polluting fuel substitutes. May be, tri-propellant engines using kerosene or air-breathing engines can lead to a solution. But engineering history shows that these objectives require incremental development through in-service evolution rather than quantum leaps in technology.

The zeal for the novelty of space-trip and ego-satisfaction at the experience is causing rush for bookings. It is apprehended that competing space carriers, in their effort to harvest early profits, may abnormally escalate the number of launches which could adversely affect the ozone layer. Thus, there is reason for “eco-anxiety” with a shaky validation for the causecelebreof space travel and tourism. Possibly, the economic benefits and multiplier effect of space travel and space hospitality may turn out to be unconscionably high in terms of environmental costs and equally unpredictable in consequences for humanity.

Although, space travel may have to be held accountable for the consequential pollution, yet this development cannot be stalled. We have to find a way to co-exist. Perhaps, one option could be to restrict and regulate launches for commercial space travel in the current decade; and concurrently accelerate research for greater clarity on the flagged adverse impact. It will be wise to act in time before it is too late and beyond redemption because humanity deserves, ergaomnes, clean atmosphere and space environment.


References:

* Adjunct Professor, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad

[1] For example, Woerner’s Moon Colony or the Mars Village.

[2] This feeling has been experienced by astronauts even in repeated flights.

[3] The Warsaw Convention, 1929 has since been superseded by the Montreal Convention, 1999.