The Lunar Embassy: Fraud Or Fantasy?

Dennis Hope
Lunar Ambassador

"...what Hope is doing is ... either a joke, and thus legal, or it is not a joke, and thus illegal. As the Lunar Embassy itself points out, the Lunar Deeds are 'novelty gifts.' Their legal classification as novelty items means that these are to be used animus jocandi, i.e., for fun only. It is not illegal to sell or to possess novelty items; it is illegal though to misuse them outwith the 'novelty use only' scope."

— Virgiliu Pop, LL.Lic, LLM
Lunar Real Estate: Buyer, Beware!

In 1980, a California man named Dennis Hope (photo, right) reportedly "claimed" the moon as his own property, and since that time has been busily selling off bits and chunks of our nearest extraterrestrial neighbor.  Interest in his enterprise has attracted attention from around the world and led to articles and stories in Time and USA Today, as well as on CNN and Space.com.

Hope, a failed actor, ventriloquist and shoe salesman who is serious enough about this venture to call himself "The Head Cheese," has built an amazing cottage industry around his purported claim.  He trademarked the term "Lunar Embassy" with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and has marketed his operation well, starting with his humble home base in the tiny California Delta town of Rio Vista.  (One wag notes that the biggest business in Rio Vista is Hope's "Lunar Embassy"; the second largest is the local sewage treatment plant.)  The "Lunar Embassy" currently franchises operations in Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

A disagreement with his franchisee in the Netherlands, however, dissolved into a lawsuit that was thrown out of court because the judge decided he had no jurisdiction over the Moon. In November 2003, a warrant charging fraud and theft was filed against Hope's Canadian franchisee, Lisa Fulkerson of Moon Land Registry, who became a fugitive from justice after taking off with more than a million dollars owed to Hope.

According to an article in the Canadian press, "In February 2001, she was supposed to pay Hope $1.2 million US. Instead, she flew to California for a meeting and without the money. Hope said he fined Fulkerson $250,000 and tacked on interest. She didn't start paying the fine for 16 months, pushing it to close to $300,000." Her current whereabouts are unknown.

FLASH! Fugitive Canada Lunar Embassy operator busted in Las Vegas!

FLASH! German Lunar Embassy offices raided in fraud inquiry!

While members of the "serious" space industry — that is, those interested in private enterprise and colonization on the moon — quickly dismiss Hope, those who have actually purchased properties from Hope are, with rare exception, fanatical in their obsession with this matter. As I can personally attest from literally hundreds of angry messages — many threatening violence or (even worse) law suits — Hope's landowners believe unflinchingly in the validity of his claim to ownership of the moon.

Although Hope has made broad assertions as to how many customers have purchased lunar land, ranging upwards of one-hundred thousand, a piece that ran on the television program "Bay Area Backroads" (shown locally in San Francisco and Northern California) set the total at a much more humble 15,000 over the twenty year span.

(As an aside, the CNN.com article regarding Hope's claim was not particularly flattering; in fact, it quotes the esteemed attorney Frans G. von der Dunk of the International Institute for Air and Space Law, who states plainly that Hope's alleged lunar ownership is "either a hollow claim or a fraud.")

The Claim

Individuals who purchase property on the moon from Hope receive a parchment "Lunar Deed," a "Lunar Sight Map" (sic) showing the approximate location of the property, a tongue-in-cheek "Lunar Constitution and Bill of Rights," and a booklet entitled "You Own The What?" that tells Hope's broad and fanciful tale of how he came to "own the moon."

Hope's story, told in his own words, is a sort of modern day Horatio Alger tale:

"...In 1980, a very bright, young and handsome Mr. Dennis Hope, went to his local US Governmental Office for claim registries, the San Francisco County Seat, and made a claim for the entire lunar surface, as well as the surface of all the other eight planets of our solar system and their moons (except Earth and the sun). Obviously, he was at first taken for a crackpot, until, 3 supervisors, 2 Floors and 5 hours later, the main supervisor accepted, and registered his claim."

It's a good story, but how true is it?

First of all, the story as noted has a slight and perhaps excusable error: Hope says he went to "his local US Governmental Office for claim registries (sic), the San Francisco County Seat." I can only admit to having lived in San Francisco for three decades, but Hope's statement is at best confusing. The City and County of San Francisco are a single entity (the only city in San Francisco County is, in fact, San Francisco), while the United States government is a completely separate and unrelated entity.

Neither entity is located within the same building in San Francisco. And neither entity has a "claims registry" for real estate or other property — earthbound or otherwise — anywhere in the city, not in 1980 and not today. San Francisco does have an Office of the Assessor-Recorder, but they are only responsible for keeping track of taxable properties located within the city and county. They are located on a single floor, in a single room, at City Hall.

Dennis Hope at World Headquarters
(Note the word at the top of the sign)

So where did Dennis Hope go to claim his property?

According to the Internal Revenue Service (the only entity that expressed even a passing interest in this matter), "No agency of the United States government is responsible for registering claims to real property. ...Individual states are responsible for recording ownership of properties within their jurisdiction." Note that Hope didn't say he went to the California state offices in the capitol city, Sacramento, to stake his claim, which would have made more sense on several levels and would have been a much easier (and closer) drive for him from Rio Vista.

* Click here to read Hope's "claim."

Silence Is Golden?

Hope states in his tale that finally, in the face of his persistence, "the main supervisor accepted, and registered his claim," then he sat back and waited.

A quick aside: the copy of Hope's "claim" included with his "deeds" for at least five years (perhaps many more) was nothing more than a haphazardly-written bit of doggerel, filled with misspelled words and grammatical errors down to the point that he signs off "Respectively" (rather than "Respectfully") "The Heads Cheese" (rather than the "Head Cheese," singular). Most notable is that the scrap of paper bears no sign of the "registration mark" from the alleged "main supervisor." No official rubber stamp, no initials, no notary seal. Nothing.

Considering what a valuable document Hope's "claim" is, you'd think that he'd have copies of it plastered everywhere, but no. Instead, all you get is a document that appears to have been written by a third-grader using Mommy's circa-1993 Apple IIe computer.

As his story continues, Hope notes:

"The US government has several years to contest such a claim. They never did. Neither did the United Nations nor the Russian Government. This allowed Mr. Hope to take the next step and copyright his work with the US Copyright registry office. So, with his claim and Copyright Registration Certificate from the US Government in hand, Mr. Hope became what is probably the largest landowner on the planet today."

Okay, I have said this before to the point that many of you are sick of it, but I'll say it again: I haven't finished law school yet, but even I know this one.

The Head Cheese with grown-up Trekkie pals

There are two points to make. The first is the government not contesting the "claim." That's sort of like me going into my local McDonald's and telling the manager there that I'm claiming ownership of the Quick-E-Mart across the street.

If the manager of the McDonald's doesn't contest my claim, THAT DOESN'T MEAN I'M THE OWNER OF THE QUICK-E-MART! He doesn't have jurisdiction, so my claim means absolutely nothing. Since the "main supervisor" of whatever entity Dennis Hope entered his claim with had no legal jurisdiction at any level ... well, you get my point.

The second point involves copyright law and the way Hope claims to have implemented it. Even a first year law student knows the basics of copyright law. You can copyright a song, or a novel, or a screenplay or a photograph. You cannot copyright real property, such as the land you live on or the building you own. United States Copyright Law states quite simply:

Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:

(1) literary works;

(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;

(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;

(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;

(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;

(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;

(7) sound recordings; and

(8) architectural works.

Note that no mention is made of celestial bodies. Furthermore, although Hope states that he physically had a "Copyright Registration Certificate from the US Government in hand," an exhaustive search of the government database shows nothing registered in his name or his business' name. (Want to try to find it yourself? Click here.)

So what did Dennis Hope actually "copyright"?

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Dennis Hope is the owner of the registered trademark (not copyright) to the term "Lunar Embassy," and the unique logo bearing that mark.  Simply, the difference between a common trademark, which uses the superscript "tm" symbol, and a registered trademark, which uses the "®" symbol, is that you have gone through the process of legally registering the term you devised with the USPTO; the mere act of putting the term into common use constitutes trademark.

Hope registered the term "Lunar Embassy" with the USPTO only in March 2000:

Word Mark LUNAR EMBASSY
Goods and Services IC 035. US 100 101 102. G & S: Electronic retailing services, via a global computer network, in the field of novelty items with a lunar or space alien theme.
Mark Drawing Code (1) TYPED DRAWING
Serial Number 75519724
Filing Date July 16, 1998
Published for Opposition January 4, 2000
Registration Number 2334598
Registration Date March 28, 2000
Owner (REGISTRANT) Hope, Dennis M. DBA Lunar Embassy INDIVIDUAL UNITED STATES 6000 Airport Blvd. Rio Vista CALIFORNIA 94571
Attorney of Record CHERIE G. PORTER
Disclaimer NO CLAIM IS MADE TO THE EXCLUSIVE RIGHT TO USE "Lunar" APART FROM THE MARK AS SHOWN
Type of Mark SERVICE MARK
Register PRINCIPAL
Live/Dead Indicator LIVE

Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Dennis Hope at the Lunar EmbassyWhich leads us to our next point, regarding the term "novelty" as stated in the trademark document itself (at the top, under "Goods and Services").

Novelty Act

The house I live in is located on real property that is (in essence) owned by the mortgage company. It is a real, tangible property. Somewhere, somebody has possession of the deed and title to this property, registered and recorded with the state and county. It is land, it is real ... and it sure as hell isn't a novelty.

Again, according to the Frequently Asked questions page on the "Lunar Embassy" Web site:

If this is for real, why is it a novelty gift?

Answer

We use this statement in two contexts: The first as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary; The quality of being novel: 1) something new and unusual and 2) a small mass-produced article. Well, a property on the Moon definitely falls into all of those categories. The second context is totally out of the Lunar Embassies own, personal paranoia, as our lawyers explained to us 20 years ago when this all started, that this can help avoid any frivolous lawsuits from a foreign country. You should know that this does not diminish the value of the property that you purchase in any way, as every deed is recorded and registered in the Lunar Embassy's registration database and every owners information is listed with that registration. You own this property.

The moon is "a small mass-produced article"? Seriously?

Just a quick question: when was the last time you saw an attorney walk into court carrying a copy of the American Heritage Dictionary under his arm? And if he expects to use that as his law reference, you can be certain that the next sound you'll hear is the other attorneys laughing their butts off at him.

And, actually, Hope is being disingenuous here on another level. The definition of "novelty" in the American Heritage Dictionary is ever-so-slightly edited as Hope presents it. While the definition does say "a small mass-produced article," Hope tellingly leaves off the remainder of the definition: "...such as a toy or trinket."

There is a reason why Hope's lawyers told him to use the "novelty gift" disclaimer on his documents, and the reason wasn't "frivolous lawsuits" from a foreign country; instead, it was precisely as he stated, rather revealingly: "personal paranoia" to cover him from being sued by his own customers when they figure out that their deeds are "just for fun."

First There Is Hope...

Hope tells anyone who will listen that his "legal bases" (sic) for being the owner of the Moon is that his claim dates back to 1980, making him the first person to have staked his claim. Again, just because Dennis Hope doesn't know the right answer, it doesn't mean that his answer is right:

LUNAR CLAIMS PRE-DATING DENNIS HOPE

* In 1952, the Elves, Gnomes and Little Men's Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society of Berkeley, Calif., put its stamp on a triangular area in the Sea of Tranquility, informing both the United Nations and the U.S. president of their ownership. It was a "publicity gag" intended to boost their reputation in the Bay Area; instead, it made the headlines across the globe. Their claim did not go however unchallenged; the objection came from one Alexander F. Victor of the Monterey peninsula, who informed the Little Men that they couldn't make a claim on the Moon — because he already owned it.

* In 1953, Jenaro Gajardo Vera, a Chilean lawyer, published a deed to the moon in his nation's official record three times, an act he said made the Moon his. His will left it to the people of Chile.

* In 1955, Robert R. Coles, chairman of New York's famed Hayden Planetarium, called the Moon his own and sold parcels for one dollar per acre.

* And in 1966, 35 citizens of Geneva, Ohio, signed a "Declaration of Lunar Ownership." Emulating the US "Declaration of Independence", the document avows: "When in the course of human events and space-age accomplishments, the destiny of mankind becomes influenced … [by] the presence of a particular controversial Celestial Body unclaimed and unregulated … it should be advisable and honourable … to lay definitive and prior claim to the entire physical mass and any and all aura, aspect, imaginative or otherwise, of … the Moon."

There are at least a dozen other less-publicized "claims" that have been made over the years, not one of them any more (or less) valid than Hope's dubious claim -- only Hope has done a better job promoting his.

While you're pondering that, I'm heading off to the government office for claims registries (over at the county seat) to file my copyright on the city of Houston. I've always loved this town, so I may as well make it legal...

See also:
Dennis Hope: You Own The What?

e What?