Folks who pay to have a star named receive an ornate certificate and kit like this one.

They’re selling star names in Reno again.

The International Star Registry (ISR) has radio spots running in Reno, offering to let listeners name a star after a friend or loved one, which will be registered in a book deposited at the U.S. Copyright Office.

The problem is, neither the “registry” nor the Copyright Office names stars. That’s done by the International Astronomical Union, which does not charge $54 to do it. That’s how much ISR charges.

ISR, an Ingleside, Ill., company, has a long history of selling star names. In 1988, the price was $35, which has been raised incrementally over the years since. Nothing it does is illegal, though plenty of public officials consider it deceptive, as do legitimate astronomers. Some of those astronomers have been threatened with lawsuits by ISR for telling the public that star naming is a scam.

Some defend the star-naming companies. Greg Crinklaw, an astronomical software developer in New Mexico, has written that “most people who buy stars don’t care if it’s official or not. … This is a symbol, not a real thing, just like buying flowers or a Hallmark card.”

But that view is belied by the experience of planetarium operators. They speak of having to explain the situation to tearful visitors who have named stars after dead parents or deceased infants. David Knisely of Hyde Observatory in Nebraska says he has had such experiences, and it is often difficult to hide the truth from planetarium visitors.

Knisely says, “Other times, they give me celestial coordinates for ‘their’ star that lack enough accuracy or the specified equinox date to even begin to tell them which star is really the one that they have ‘bought.’ ”

One astronomer, Kevin Conod at New Jersey’s Dreyfuss Planetarium, once told a newspaper of the emotional toll taken when parents who have named a star for a deceased child come in and want to see the star through the telescope.

Art Johnson, who spent many years as director of Reno’s Fleishmann Planetarium, says that “on occasion people would come up and ask if we could point the telescope at their stars.” That was often difficult to do, for a variety of technical reasons (the star could be too faint, below the horizon, or of little astronomical interest). Johnson says he was angered by the way companies took advantage of gullible people.

“I used to use harsher language than I do today,” he says. “One of my colleagues used to call them scammers, and I won’t go there, but someone is making piles of money selling romance for something that is not valid. The star sellers are not doing any favors.” And, he adds, “We did our best to discourage people from buying star names. The professional observatory community pays zero attention to the International Star Registry.”

The reference in the radio spots to the U.S. Copyright Office, as well as the use of the term “registry” is apparently designed to make the star naming seem procedurally official, but it’s not. Copyrights protect intellectual property, not names. Names are protected by trade marks or service marks, but even they don’t have anything to do with names of celestial bodies. Previously, ISR also mentioned the Library of Congress in its advertising, but the library pressured the company to knock it off. The copyright office has a warning about star naming companies on its Web site, but it’s not easy to find.

The companies tend to fly below the radar of consumer regulation, in partly because the amount of money charged is relatively small.

“I can’t say I’ve heard of that one before,” says Nevada Consumer Affairs director Patricia Jarmon.

The companies get plenty of publicity from journalism, with newspapers and television stations frequently recommending star naming for gift giving. The International Planetarium Society has a warning posted on its Web page that cautions against star-naming companies—and the journalists who recommend them: “Unfortunately, there are instances of news media describing the purchase of a star name, apparently not realizing that they are promoting a money-making business only and not science.”

On May 3, 1998, New York City commissioner of consumer affairs Jules Plonetsky issued a deceptive trade practices complaint against the ISR, saying that consumers pay the company to do nothing more than an elaborate version of what those consumers can do for themselves— “walking into Central Park, pointing to the sky, and naming it themselves.” When contacted, the Consumer Affairs Office was unable to say how, or even whether, the complaint was resolved.

Paradoxically, International Star Registry has little patience for the trade practices of its competitors. It once sued another star naming company for using the term “star registry.” It charged the Virginia company with deceptive trade practices, unfair competition, trademark infringement, and consumer fraud.

ISR says on its web site that it is a member of the Better Business Bureau and a $100,000 contributor to the Public Broadcasting System. ISR representative Mike Hazelrigg declined comment, referring inquiries to advertising executive Rocky Mosell, who was not immediately available.

Most star naming companies provide purchasers with a certificate, a map of the cosmos with “their” star circled, and an astronomy booklet. The map used by most of them, according to the Planetarium Society, is from the Becvar Atlas published by Sky Publishing Company. The society says that while the maps are legitimate, some of them have been altered by the companies.

But it’s not always clear that an actual star is even being “named.” Harvard astronomer Bob Marsden has looked at some of the maps and found that “there is no star” where the maps claim. Another astronomer told Skeptical Inquirer magazine that he determined that the star circled on one of the maps was a tiny ink splatter.

As it happens, anyone can do for themselves what ISR does. In fact, in all likelihood most people can do it better than ISR, since the certificate it provides—a garish batch of calligraphy on a gilt imprinted piece of parchment—doesn’t look one bit official. Most people with a computer would be able to name a star with a more professional looking certificate, and they could register it at the copyright office (www.copyright.gov) for only $30.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...