Britain’s laws are harming businesses operating in space, experts warn

The report urges the Government to review laws so they take into account the realities of the modern space industry.

Britain’s laws are harming hi-tech companies who want to operate in the burgeoning space industry, experts have warned.

The failure to build support for businesses within current legislation makes it more likely they will move abroad, according to new research.

The study, the result of consultation with firms operating and hoping to operate in space, says UK laws are too risk-averse to allow companies to work easily in a unique and multi-national industry, particularly in the age of commercial activities outside Earth.

This creates a risk that the firms will leave the UK, and commercial space operations will flourish in nations with less stringent regulations, according to a new report by academics at the University of Exeter Law School.

The report urges the Government to review laws so they take into account the realities of the modern space industry. It says UK legislation relating to space is not well designed because it is based on an outdated view of space activity, where different countries are responsible rather than businesses. Companies are playing an increasingly important role in advancing space technology, and currently the regulatory regime is not adequately designed for this reality. The report recommends more attention should be paid to the question of how intellectual property laws apply in outer space.

The experts also urge the UK Government to start exploratory studies to find ways to legally protect the interests of British companies operating in space, particularly in relation to intellectual property for copyright works and inventions arising from or in outer space.

Dr Naomi Hawkins, from the University of Exeter Law School, who led the research, said: “Updating Britain’s laws regarding space could help the space industry prosper. If this work doesn’t take place we may sleepwalk into a situation where our legislation very quickly becomes completely unsuitable.

“The space industry is very competitive, but it also offers opportunities for the UK’s technology companies. Britain could be at the forefront of cutting edge space technology research. It is important that the UK gets the balance right between the protection of the public interest and encouraging innovation in this important field.”

The length of time it takes for licencing applications to operate in space to be processed and the prohibitive cost of the compulsory third-party insurance required are also significant barriers to the entry of small and medium enterprises and start-up companies to the UK space industry, according to the report. It urges the UK Space Agency to review how these regulations are conducted.

Commercial work in space often involves companies and technology based in different countries, which means the activity must comply with the legal regulations of multiple countries. This adds additional burdens for space technology businesses.

In the UK the Outer Space Act 1986 and the Space Industry Act 2018 regulate commercial space activities carried out in the UK or by UK nationals. They are designed to protect national and public interests, rather than commercial interests. They do not provide clarity on whether intellectual property rights apply to inventions or creations arising from or in outer space and this is detrimental to UK firms. The report urges the UK government to review this.

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