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The curious case of the woman suing eBay over ownership of the sun

The sun … which a Spanish woman claims she owns. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

Entrepreneurial people have tried to sell some weird stuff on eBay over the years: the meaning of life, the names of their children, a whole town in Tuscany. But Maria Angeles Duran, a 54-year-old mother of four from Vigo, Spain, may be the most audacious seller on eBay: She tried to sell pieces of solar real estate.

Now, Duran’s claims have made their way to a Spanish court — a totally bizarre and unexpected twist to a bizarre, unexpected story that began five years ago.

Duran makes a fitting heroine for this kind of tale. A life-long “romantic” and professional dabbler — she’s studied nursing and law, dreamt up her own religion, and penned a kinky romance novel — Duran first laid claim to the sun in the summer of 2010, when she noticed that the American entrepreneur Dennis Hope had done the same with the moon, Mars, Venus and Mercury. His claim, which rested on an alleged loophole in the United Nation’s Outer Space Treaty, was closely echoed by Duran in legal documents she drew up for a local notary.

“Outer space … is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty,” the treaty says. Nothing about individual ownership! Duran said.

Interestingly, Duran held onto this claim for several years without anyone really questioning it; perhaps that’s because it’s legally ridiculous, or because the international media never heard about it. But in 2013, Duran decided to rock the boat. She opened an eBay store and began auctioning, for one euro each, square-meter plots of sun with accompanying ownership documents.

You can still see the certificates, in fact: Duran now sells them on her personal Web site. That’s because eBay found her in violation of its “intangible goods” policy — you can’t sell things that don’t exist, basically — and summarily kicked her off the site.

Many a weird eBay story has ended here: You’ll recall the British man who tried to auction off his cheating wife, or the weirdo who attempted to sell Britney Spears’s cut hair.

But Duran is not your average eBay seller; Spanish media accounts paint her as more ideological, and more litigious, than most. In several interviews, Duran has framed her claim to the sun as a critique of corporate ownership: If utility companies can profit off wind and water, she’s argued, what’s to stop people from profiting off the solar system, too? (Backing up this vaguely anti-capitalist ideology, Duran has also claimed that all profits from her solar sales will go to charities and other projects that support social good.)

Even before this current brush with notoriety, Duran was making Spanish headlines for copyrighting the original call of Tarzan, c. 1932, and suing anyone who tried to use it.

So when eBay shut down her account, Duran turned around and sued the site for breach of contract — a case that eBay first tried to settle, then argue on jurisdiction grounds, and is now actually having to address.

Yesterday, La Voz de Galicia reported that a Spanish court just agreed to hear the case — deciding that it does, in fact, have jurisdiction over a Spanish citizen, an American company … and a star 93 million miles away.

“I am not a stupid person and I know the law,” Duran said of her solar ownership claim in 2010. In other words, she’s pretty confident she’s going to win.

At question, however, is not the actual issue of Duran’s ownership. Instead, the case will focus more on eBay’s seller agreement — and whether or not Duran violated it. She is arguing that the sun is a real, tangible object; eBay will presumably counter that even though the sun is real, one-meter ownership plots on it aren’t. (Neither eBay’s American or Spanish divisions responded to requests for comment.)

Whichever way the case goes, Duran will have made her point: Namely, that if she can’t own a piece of space, John Travolta, Ronald Reagan and Dennis Hope can’t, either. Unfortunately, that message doesn’t seem to have reached many of Duran’s buyers: She’s sold more than 1,000 plots of sun  so far.

Wrote one prospective buyer, pun unintended: “Hello Angeles, I hope you know you’re a star.”