Assuming you haven't been under a rock, there's a decent chance that you've seen astronaut Chris Hadfield's rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity
(with the lyrics conveniently changed to skip the whole dying in space part). The video was released just before Hadfield returned to earth, and completely fit with Hadfield's time on the International Space Station, where he became the world's first serious social media expert from space -- tweeting, Tumbling and YouTubing up a storm. But... filming a cover song and releasing it via YouTube from space had some people wondering: can you untangle the copyright issues here? Thankfully, Glenn Fleishman dug in over at the Economist (which, lamely, still refuses to name their writers, but now provides the "initials" of bloggers, so you can parse out who's who), and explained what a fine mess it is
The punchline here is that it doesn't really matter, because after a bunch of back and forth negotiations, they got all the permissions they needed directly from David Bowie. But, assuming others start going up into space (yay, private space tourism), this issue is going to be raised sooner or later. Glenn points out that it's kind of messy, because different countries have very different compulsory licensing laws for cover songs, and there are no compulsories for sync licenses, which are needed to put the song to a video. There was also the issue of the International Space Station having different sections "owned" by different countries, and the official agreement says that it matters where creation happens -- so if the video had been done in all different parts of the space station, it potentially could have been a mess (though, it looks like it was all filmed in parts owned by NASA).
While there's no issue with this specific case, Glenn alerts us to a paper from a few years ago that lays out how copyright in space is about to get complicated:
The copyright issue may seem trivial, but the emergence of privately funded rocket launches, space tourism and space exploration hold the potential for more substantive disputes. If an astronaut were to travel to the Moon, an asteroid or Mars on a privately funded spacecraft, the situation would become knottier still, because the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 applies to countries, not companies or private individuals. J.A.L. Sterling, a London-based expert on international copyright law, anticipated all this in a 2008 paper, "Space Copyright Law: the new dimension", in which he lists dozens more potentially problematic scenarios that could arise, some seemingly risible at first. He asks what would have happened if, on a moon landing broadcast live by NASA across the world, two astronauts were overcome by emotion and burst into song—one covered by copyright. NASA might still be engaged in litigation 40 years later. More prosaically and immediately plausibly, Sterling considers space travellers who put copyrighted material from Earth on a server reachable from space, or engage in rights-violating "public performances" for crewmates. If the first person to walk on Mars decides to launch into "A Whole New World", the rights will need to have been cleared with Disney first.
Yeah, remember Rob Reid's funny sci-fi novel about copyright in space
? Perhaps, like many sci-fi books, it will eventually turn out to be an accurate prediction of the future.