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I'm not quite sure whether the question is correctly answered here or whether it belongs to Law Stack Exchange.

Assuming I can fly into space, more precisely to the moon and back again.

What laws forbid me to collect the American flag (regardless of its condition) or any other object of a space nation and bring it back to earth?

Would that be "simple" theft?

If the country is important because of its laws, I would like to know from the perspective of the USA, China and Germany.

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    $\begingroup$ It'll be even more interesting if such party brought back the flag then returned it to NASA. Then it's not even a theft, but, an "unauthorized relocation"? $\endgroup$ – user3528438 Jun 30 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ @user3528438 NASA kindly requests that you stay a minimum of 2km from any of their landing sites. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jun 30 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Arguably, it would not be a theft, since the flag is abandoned property. It could even be seen as picking up litter :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 1 at 3:56
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - in that case, there's a public park in Sheffield (UK) full of abandoned Henry Moore sculptures; I'm off to hire a flatbed truck and a crane... $\endgroup$ – Spratty Jul 1 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Is it abandoned property though? Parts of Apollo landing sites are still operational (eg retroreflextors). Even if you go with the space-as-international-waters legal interpretation, then "salvaging" Apollo sites would still not be ok $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Jul 1 at 10:36
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How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts summarizes the 1967 Outer Space Treaty thusly:

These recommendations are consistent with international law, including the following: The 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty (OST), which provides, in part:

  • That outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all states;
  • That there should be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space;
  • That outer space is not subject to national appropriation;
  • That parties to the treaty retain jurisdiction and control over objects launched into outer space that are listed on their registries, while they are in outer space and that ownership of objects launched into outer space is not affected by their presence in outer space or by their return to Earth;
  • That nations be guided by the principle of cooperation and mutual assistance in lunar exploration and use, with due regard to the corresponding interests of other parties to the treaty; and That international consultations must take place prior to the commencement of an activity that any party has reason to believe would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other parties.

Article VIII of the treaty is the relevant portion here; this is the text: enter image description here

So all parties to the OST agree that US flags on the moon remain the property of the United States government. These include the US, China, and Germany (as well as over 100 other nations).

Note that even if the 1967 treaty were not operative, you would not be able to successfully retrieve a US flag from an Apollo landing site and maintain ownership of it; the US government has many more lawyers than you do, and would likely deploy as many as needed to reclaim the flag.

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    $\begingroup$ Disagree with the last paragraph. Whatever country you bring the flag back to, it will have to decide if it wants to use its law enforcement and courts to take the flag away from you. If you return to the U.S., the federal government will certainly take the flag away from you. Germany would take the flag away because it is a close ally of the U.S. (more...) $\endgroup$ – DrSheldon Jun 30 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ Even though they do not care much for the U.S., Russia and China would take the flag away because failing to do so would set a precedent on their own assets on the moon. Your best bet would be to go to a country like Iran or North Korea, who have no regard for U.S. property, would be unlikely to cooperate with the U.S, and would even see having the flag there as an act of defiance against the U.S. $\endgroup$ – DrSheldon Jun 30 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, but then Iran or North Korea has ownership of the flag, not OP. :) $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jun 30 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ The last sentence is indeed a bit off. Whoever has enough money lying around to launch their own moon-program just to grab a flag should also be able to hire a functionally infinite amount of lawyers. $\endgroup$ – mlk Jul 1 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ The same treaty. “Parties retain jurisdiction and control”. The flags are not “abandoned” under the terms of the OST. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jul 1 at 16:12
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Possession is 9/10 of the law. If you somehow get there and steal the flag, it's not like any Space Marines are going to jump out from behind a crater rim. Law needs to be enforceable.

Maintaining ownership of the flag is a different issue. You can kiss your chance of being free on US soil goodbye, especially if you're a citizen. Laws would be found, made up, or stretched so that you could be incarcerated and the flag seized--although since the flag is US property, you could just be charged with theft on the order of the millions (or billions) of dollars of effort that the flag represents or the equally astronomical cost that the flag represents in launch costs.

Now, if you're not a citizen or request asylum from a US-hostile superpower, you might be able to live out your days in political asylum in a Snowden-esque situation but realistically today's superpowers wouldn't want to stir up animosity and offer asylum to someone who stole this piece of human history. Id wager the only "safe" places would be countries which are actively hostile towards the USA (like NK), and even then, they'd probably simply ransom you and the flag to the USA for political concessions.

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    $\begingroup$ Laws made up later should not be applied to a crime done before that law existed. At least in countries following fundamental princips of jurisdicition. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jul 1 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Uwe "Made up" is maybe the wrong turn of phrase, you're right. What I mean to say is that new judiciary precident could be set in the "steal-the-flag" proceedings which afterwards becomes "new law" $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Jul 1 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Uwe : I'm sure they can find something already existing, in the style of unauthorized interference between the diplomacy of the countries, or triggering an international diplomatic incident, or something like that (defacing a flag of a foreign country the local country has good relations with, is often persecuted as a hate crime or incitement, or whatever). $\endgroup$ – vsz Jul 1 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ @computercarguy That's a different scenario. DrSheldon's comment in the other answer explains why but essentially, right now, all countries tacitly (and by OST) agree that space assets are "no touch". Russia harboring the flag and/or thief would show that Russia does not respect US space property and in turn, the US would conclude that Russian space assets are fair game too (satellites, etc). $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Jul 1 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ While technically speaking you're correct, the question wasn't "Can I get away with stealing the flag?" it was "Is it legal?" and the answer to that is a definitive no, as established by Russell's answer. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 2 at 13:46
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It may be that if your country is in a war with the USA, you may claim the flag as a war trophy. If your army manages to defeat the US, they may as well accept the loss of this particular flag.

Otherwise, it is property of the US government.

Both the US government (as stated by NASA) and the general public considers it a rather valuable asset.

In most jurisdictions, leaving something somewhere that is your property doesn't stop it from being your property. There are few exceptions and the law may or may not provide you with a practical means of defending your property, but in the general case one can expect to find their car where they have parked it overnight. Well, almost always.

The Outer Space Treaty just explicitly extends this basic understanding of property to space.

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There are similar situations on Earth where objects were taken and the original owners have been unable to get them back, such as the The Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles).

So while the law may make it technically theft once you have it and put it on display the United States may find it difficult to get back. Many countries are unwilling to get involved in that kind of dispute because they themselves have a lot of stuff that others could lay legitimate claim to, so for example extradition or local legal redress may be tricky.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ownership of the Elgin Marbles is not the best example to use here - if that was a simple legal matter it would have been put to rest years ago: "the original owners" as you put it, are not nearly as clear as the "original owners" of this flag, although both do partially rest on a definition of "abandoned". $\endgroup$ – Mike Brockington Jul 3 at 18:22
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Yes, it would be simple theft.

In most countries whose laws are related to those here in the UK, there can be no thing which doesn't have an owner, and taking that thing without permission constitutes theft.

Trying to identify the owner is quite different.

Trying to enforce the law is also quite different.

Neither alters the fact that if it's a thing, it has an owner. That NASA left the flag hanging about the moon doesn't stop it being NASA's property.

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