As a final sign-off for his mission aboard the International Space Station, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performed David Bowie’s rendition of “Space Oddity.” The video has generated more than 15 million views on YouTube so far, and if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth it:
The Economist published a great explainer on how copyright works in space, applied to this rendition of “Space Oddity”:
The song “Space Oddity” is under copyright protection in most countries, and the rights to it belong to Mr Bowie. But compulsory-licensing rights in many nations mean that any composition that has been released to the public (free or commercially) as an audio recording may be recorded again and sold by others for a statutorily defined fee, although it must be substantively the same music and lyrics as the original. But with the ISS circling the globe, which jurisdiction was Commander Hadfield in when he recorded the song and video? Moreover, compulsory-licensing rights for covers of existing songs do not include permission for broadcast or video distribution. Commander Hadfield’s song was loaded onto YouTube, which delivers video on demand to users in many countries around the world. The first time the video was streamed in each country constituted publication in that country, and with it the potential for copyright infringement under local laws. Commander Hadfield could have made matters even more complicated by broadcasting live as he sang to an assembled audience of fellow astronauts for an onboard public performance while floating from segment to segment of the ISS.
That is because the space station consists of multiple modules and other pieces (called “elements”) under the registration of the United States, the European Space Agency (ESA) consortium, Russia and Japan. The agreement governing the ISS makes it clear (in Article 5) that the applicable laws, including those governing IP rights, depend on which part of it an astronaut is in. This is most relevant when astronauts conduct science or write accounts of their work, whether for public or private parties, although equally true during their off hours. The audio and video seem to have been recorded in the Destiny module, owned by America’s space agency, NASA, the Cupola, which previously owned by the ESA (and would thus have been governed by European law) but was transferred to NASA in 2005, and the Japanese Experiment Module, developed by Japan’s aerospace agency, JAXA. The video was transmitted to Canada (probably through ground stations around the globe), where Mr Bowie’s former bandmate Emm Gryner added a piano accompaniment and others edited and produced the final product. But recording a private performance does not violate any laws; a violation only occurs if the material is publicly distributed. Had the song been broadcast from space, Mr Bowie’s lawyers would have been entitled to seek redress in Canadian, American and Japanese courts, in addition to any objections they might have raised based on YouTube views elsewhere.
Turns out the making of this video took months of preparation, as Commander Hadfield had obtained permission to record and distribute the song; production and distribution of the song was entirely terrestrial.