Astronaut Chris Hadfield interview: On space and copyright oddities

Illustration by Jared Jewell
Astronaut Chris Hadfield is floating in a most peculiar way. — illustration by Jared Jewell

Last year, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his son Evan cooked up an out-of-this-world family project: a cover of David Bowie’s 1969 hit “Space Oddity,” complete with a zero gravity music video filmed on the International Space Station. Uploaded right before he touched down on Earth, it rapidly racked up millions of hits from around the world.

His “Space Oddity” video was in the news again recently after it was pulled from YouTube, sparking conjecture that Bowie’s lawyers believed that it was an interplanetary copyright infringement. The reality is a bit more mundane—though before getting into the minutiae of copyright licensing, let’s start from the beginning.

“When I first got to the space station,” Commander Chris Hadfield explained, “I recorded a Christmas song my brother and I wrote called ‘Jewel in the Night.’ Then my son put it out on SoundCloud, and when people found out there was a musician in space, there was a continuous clamor for me to record ‘Space Oddity.'”

Unofficial copy of Chris Hadfield’s “Space Oddity” music video

“It surprised me because, why would you want to do that? The astronaut dies in that song,” he said, laughing. “But my son was persistent and kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to do it.’ So I made a deal with him that if he rewrote the song so that the astronaut lived, I would make a recording of it.”

“It’s not a song I normally play,” he added. “I’ve played a lot of music, but that wasn’t in my repertoire.” During his 21-year tenure as a Houston-based astronaut, Hadfield fronted and played in several local groups—including Max Q, an all-astronaut band.

It turns out that many astronauts are musicians, including about half of his crewmates on the space station—which had an acoustic guitar, harmonica, keyboard and ukulele. “There’s a connection between music and mathematics,” Hadfield pointed out.

How does space change the way you play music? “The big difference is that the guitar is not held in place by anything,” Hadfield says. “It doesn’t suspend itself on a strap, and it doesn’t sit on your lap because it’s weightless.” He compares it to playing an acoustic guitar that is floating in a pool, and also notes that weightlessness alters the way you strum and fret—because gravity isn’t pulling your arm down.

“But the nice thing is, if you drop the pick, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

Space also affects your voice. “You have no weight on your diaphragm,” Hadfield says, “your head is constantly congested because there’s no way for your sinuses to drain, your tongue is a little thicker … and so your voice has a different quality in space than it does on Earth.”

After Hadfield demoed the track, musicians on Earth (including former Bowie band member Emm Gryner) added other instruments. He shot the music video while in orbit and sent it down to the Canadian Space Agency, which handed it over to his son, Evan Hadfield, who edited the footage with a friend.

“They released it just in a nick of time,” Hadfield says, “got it all done and released it the day before I came back from orbit.”

But before they could legally upload it to YouTube, his team had to deal with a variety of copyright issues.

The Commander’s cover of “Space Oddity” raised many legal questions. Could one infringe on David Bowie’s earthly copyright in space? Is a sound recording even copyrightable if it has been taped in space? And if so, in what country would it be copyrighted?

It appears that the answers are yes, yes, and … well, it’s complicated. According to The Economist, the various sections of the International Space Station are governed by different intellectual property laws—depending on which country built them.

Hadfield recorded the performance in the Canadian part of the space station, which means that the sound recording was copyrighted in Canada. Fortunately, the earthbound musicians he collaborated with were all located in Canada, which avoided additional transnational copyright headaches.

To get permission from Bowie’s song publishing company, Hadfield pulled the old Astronaut Mind Trick. “I just called them from the space station on the phone,” he tells me. “Time was getting a little short, and so I called them and asked them, and they talked to the people at the Canadian Space Agency and it worked out.”

“It turns out that even Bowie himself gave the go-ahead, “Hadfield said. “The licensing people liked it, and they just charged a nominal fee—just a few Euros, I think … and gave it to everybody in the world for free for a year.”

When Hadfield’s team realized last May that the copyright license would expire soon, they temporarily took the video down until all the administrative details were ironed out. “The legal folks have been very nice and accommodating,” he said, “and they’re looking forward to getting it back out there to share with everyone.”

In fact, the official video should be available on YouTube soon. “Everywhere I go in the world, people have seen it,” Hadfield says, “which is amazing, because it was just a father-son project.”

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