Commodifying Decommodification

A guest post from our reader Pantsless Santa. It’s an eye-opener! The desire of these people to laugh at the very principles they created, and told us we had to live by, seems to know no bounds.

image: RK Richardson/Flickr (Creative Commons)

image: RK Richardson/Flickr (Creative Commons)


By Pantsless Santa:
This belongs in the totally effin’ hilarious category more than anything else:
Decommodification LLC is actually trying to register the word “decommodification” as a trademark itself, and they’re doing it in the most hypocritical and illogical way possible.
Trademark registrations and applications are all public record. If you search for “Decommodification LLC” on the Patent and Trademark Office’s search system, “TESS,” you can see all of the trademarks that that the LLC owns and has applied for.
There are the usual suspects “Burning Man,” “Decompression,” and “Black Rock City.”
Flambe Lounge,” which dates back to 2003, is probably some old business idea that never panned out.
Burning Man Brew” was originally registered by a brewer and later purchased (I suspect) by the LLC, likely because it would have been more expensive to fight over it in court – nothing indicates that the BMOrg intends to get into the speciality beer business.
Black Rock Gazette” is registered by the BMOrg (Black Rock City LLC). Nothing is currently registered by Larry, Michael, or Marian.
Finally, the LLC has applied to register “Decommodification.”
I’ll stop for a minute here to explain a couple of important things about trademarks. Trademarks are very different than copyrights. You can’t simply pick out a word or phrase or logo (a “mark”) and get the rights to it.
To oversimplify greatly, you can’t register or protect a mark unless it’s associated with a particular good or service (defined broadly), and has actually been used publicly to promote or sell the thing it’s associated with. That last part is called “use in commerce.” People often get tripped up over “use in commerce,” because in normal human language it looks like it means the same thing as “used commercially.” It doesn’t. It’s a legal term of art meaning something like “used to promote or sell any type of good or service for any reason whether or not for profit.” This keeps companies from simply registering all of the words they think that they or their competitors might use and squatting on them. They can only register marks they’re actually using.
To oversimplify again, you can only protect or register a mark in order to keep people from using your name (or brand or logo) on their products in a way that might fool consumers.
So, Decommodification LLC applied to register the mark “Decommodification.”
Thinking back to the above, you might ask yourself: “What the hell good or service could Larry & Co. POSSIBLY plan to use this for?” Well, they put it right in the application: “Commercial administration of the licensing and sublicensing of intellectual property by others.”
Now, before anybody (*cough*) gets started with grand theories about what the LLC might be planning with this, I want to share my opinion that absolutely nothing sinister or underhanded is going on here. “Commercial” is still being used as a term of art as above, and the rest of the sentence simply describes exactly what the LLC does. In other words, the actual purpose of this trademark application is to prevent somebody else from opening up their own Decommodification LLC or Decommodification Inc. or Decommodification Gmbh that does the same thing as this one.
This trademark has a very narrow reach. Remember, a trademark must be associated with a particular good or service. This wouldn’t stop any of us from calling our toilet-removal businesses “Pantsless Santa’s De-Commodeification” or whatever. So why bother bringing it up in the first place? Like I said above, it’s effin’ hilarious! To spell it out:
Larry Harvey & Co. are attempting to define the word “Decommodification” as “Commodifying intellectual property.”
Decommodification LLC filed their application for “Decommodification” on March 26, 2012. The application is still being processed because the LLC has not, even after multiple extensions, been able to provide evidence that they have actually used the word “Decommodification” in “commerce.”
Honestly, there is no reason for them to actually register “Decommodification.” Who else in the world would ever create an intellectual property licensing company by that name? The only reason anybody might do that is to poke fun at the BMOrg/Decommodification LLC: and a trademark does not protect you against parody.
You can check the history and status of the trademark application here:
Pantsless Santa, Esq.
General Counsel
Portland Cacophony Society

A Carnival of Smoke and Mirrors

The new theme has been announced. As per the rumor we leaked on November 16, it’s circus-related:

This year’s theme is about mirrors and masks, mazes and merger. It will be a kind of magic show that takes the form of an old-fashioned carnival. This Carnival of Mirrors asks three essential questions: within our media-saturated world, where products and people, consumption and communion morph into an endlessly diverting spectacle, who is the trickster, who is being tricked, and how might we discover who we really are?

Classic carnivals, as theaters of illusion, upheld a very strict dividing line that separated carnies, cast as showmen, from members of a naïve public who were labeled chumps and suckers, marks and rubes. Our carnival, however, will perform an even more subversive trick — its motto is Include the Rube. The wall dividing the observer from observed will disappear, as by an act of magic; through the alchemy of interaction, everyone at once can be the carny and the fool…

Old-fashioned carnivals were dominated by an all-pervading hucksterism; midways featured barkers, shills, rigged games of chance and skill, and not infrequently defrauded customers — “short change” is a carny term. They also featured titillating freak shows, geek acts and museums of the outré and forbidden. Our midway, on the other hand, will satirize deception while inviting all participants to summon up their inner geek, that secret freak who hides behind the mask of what is called normality. We will turn grifting into gifting; otherness becomes creative self-expression.

Read the whole thing here.

Merger? What does that have to do with carnivals? The whole thing is about deception, defrauded customers, tricksters, and the naïve fools who buy into the illusions being spun by the carnival hucksters.

I think the irony of this theme is what the Commodification Camps are really doing is turning our Gifting into Grifting - by the ring-masters who pursue the “alchemy” of monetization of our beloved Playa.

The Fool - a throwback to the very first Baker Beach burn, where they burned a Dog effigy too?

The Fool – a throwback to the very first Baker Beach burn, where they burned a dog effigy too?

They are creating a clear division between the “showmen” (presumably, themselves, since they believe it’s BMOrg who create Burning Man, not Burners), and the “chumps and suckers” who buy their product (ie, us). The subversive magic trick of “you’re all showmen and you’re all chumps at the same time” seems to facilitate their attempts to define Commodification Camps as “turnkey camps, on a spectrum like any other camp”. Are you a safari tourist in a wristband-only camp? No problem, everyone is the carny and the fool at once.

We’ve now had three car- themes in three years: CARgo cult, CARavansary, and CARnival. Is Larry just going through the dictionary?

The design of the Man seems to be the same big humanoid stick figure as this year. At the base, instead of the Souk, will be a bunch of funhouse mirrors, ironic fortune tellers, vendors, and whatever else the Regionals can come up with.

Man base design by Larry Harvey and Andrew Johnstone. Illustration by Andrew Johnstone with Hugh D’Andrade

Man base design by Larry Harvey and Andrew Johnstone. Illustration by Andrew Johnstone with Hugh D’Andrade


At the same time as announcing the theme, BMOrg launched their new web site, and a new tag line:

Welcome Home. A city in the desert. A culture of possibility. A network of dreamers and doers. now automagically redirects to

They’ve gone for aesthetics over user-friendliness; it looks visually eclectic, certainly more appealing than it used to be; but it’s become more like a maze to find your way through it all. Some pages like the “Tech Innovation” still look like the old site, with its much cleaner navigation at the top.  ePlaya has not changed. You can find it under Menu (top right), The Network, Get Involved, Connect with Burners, then scroll down the page.

The “Burning Blog” appears to now be called “Voices of Burning Man”, and has been integrated into the site. The many comments from Burners are there intact – however, you’ll have to navigate through a bizarre two-tone color scheme and the grouping of posts by category only, and comments 50 at a time. This makes it much harder to read through the comments, a further indication that they’re more interested in what they want to tell us, than listening to what we Burners have to say.

The oldest post readily available is Halcyon’s Let Them Eat Cake “Burning Cake: A Cautionary Tale”; you’ll have to hunt to find earlier posts such as “Virgins And Turnkey Camps Are Ruining Burning Man” and “Turnkey Camps (Moving Towards Effective Solutions)“, which are filed under “The Ten Principles” and “News” respectively. You are no longer able to use “Previous” and “Next” to scroll through all the blog posts. This appears to be a deliberate design feature, rather than a bug; the same with breaking the comments up onto multiple pages so you can’t just scroll through them all. If they publish a blog post that gets the community up in arms, all they have to do is have their friendly “shills” come in at the end once the people have vented with some peace, love, and unicorns stuff and the negativity can be tucked away in the “Older Comments”. They seem to have been trialling this strategy in the comments on their blog over the last week.

Earlier in the week we mentioned the Burning Man Arts Grants online system, which is for Arts Grants for non-Burning Man projects. The deadline for submissions there is December 1, 2015.

The new Arts Honorarium Grant system is now live too. The deadline to submit your Letter of Intent is December 19, 2015. The link on the Front Page to Honoraria Grants – New Process for 2015 won’t take you there, though.  You can find it under “Important Dates” on the main screen.

As we predicted, the “system” turns out to be just an online form. The form is broken out into a few different screens. You’ll need to sign up with Slideroom and create yet another profile. The Honoraria grants applications appear to be free. Perhaps they listened to our griping, or perhaps their plan from the start was that only the artists applying for smaller grants to bring Burner art to the world have to pay $5 to submit their Letter.

They’ve finally put the dates for the 2015 Nevada burn on their main web site – good news for those who were curious if it was even going to happen. The dates are August 31 - September 7.

The main page of the site lists Upcoming Global Events in a scroll-box at the bottom – all 21 of them. The dates of each are “TBA” – if you want to know when the event is, or where it is, you’ll need to go to their Regional Events page which lists 41 events, including Decompressions.

The “Where Does Your Ticket Money Go” page that tried to claim they pay $4.5 million a year to the BLM (which we proved to be really $3,485,000, with a missing $1 million+ unaccounted for), now re-directs to the Philosophical Center. It no longer shows up from their search box, but it is still visible in the Internet Archive.

I think BMOrg would be very happen for Burners to just move on and focus on 2015 now, where the fools and chumps will be merged together with the hucksters. Will the community leave them be, and take their silence and the new theme as the answer to our questions? What will this word “merger” come to mean to Burners by the time August 2015 rolls around?


Dear Burning Man…

A guest post from our reader Sandstorm. The email he’s responding to is shared at the end of this post.

Like many members of the Burning Man community I’ve spent the past 2+ months feeling justifiably concerned about the topic of Commodification Camps (aka Turnkey Camps aka Plug And Play Camps) and their place in and impact upon Burning Man and the Burner community. Like many other Burners I’ve voiced my concerns about this subject on websites such as Facebook (FB) and Burning Man’s ePlaya bulletin board, as well as in the comments sections of some of the relevant recent entries on the official Burning Man Blog. I’ve also used my artistic skills to address what I call the Commodification Camp Controversy (CCC). I’ve recently created a handful of light-hearted satirical images that speak to this subject and I’ve posted them in the unofficial Burning Man group on FB. I’ve included one of those images here.


2 days ago I and countless other Burners received a fundraising email from the Burning Man Project (BMP). I was not pleased when I read that email and that’s because until now Burning Man’s official response to the CCC has been at best lacking and at worst inept. After reading that email I carefully drafted and then sent a reply email to the BMP. I then posted the contents of that email in the unofficial Burning Man group on FB and also on ePlaya. I did so because I wanted to share with other Burners how I was trying to constructively address the CCC. I was honestly surprised by the amount of positive response that I received to those posts.

At some point on Thursday evening the owner of reached out to me on FB via PM and asked me if I’d be willing to post on his site my above mentioned email to the BMP and some of the CCC related images that I’ve recently posted on FB. I asked him to let me think about the matter before I said yes or no to him and I did so for a variety of reasons.

Although I’m a 6 time burner I believe and know that I’m a nobody in the Burner community. I’m sure as hell not a spokesperson for this community. I’m also neither an attention seeker nor am I someone who seeks to or enjoys to stir up discord about sensitive topics. Given those facts and given the amount of debate surrounding both the CCC and I was initially reluctant to share on this site the reply email that I recently sent to the BMP. That said, I know that I wrote that email with integrity and honesty and thus I’m comfortable with sharing it here.

My reply email to the BMP seems to have resonated with many of the people who’ve read it. By posting that email on this site there’s a chance that my email will reach a wider audience and perhaps inspire other burners to find their own ways of peacefully and creatively confronting the CCC. I refuse to remain silent about that topic and that’s because I love Burning Man so much. The event and the community have changed my life in so many positive ways and even if this post ends up having no impact on Larry Harvey & Co. I at least know that at a time of crisis in the Burner community I spoke up for the values that are meant to be embodied by Burning Man.

It’s important for me to state here that I do not have a broad spectrum dislike for BMORG. I can only imagine how many wonderful people work in that organization. In this situation my dislike is directed solely at a specific group of people within the Burning Man power structure. I am displeased with those who run or help to run the event in ways that clearly run counter to the stated ethos of the event and the actual ethos of the people who physically and/or creatively build and run Black Rock City.

I want to send out my sincere thanks and respect to the countless people who make Burning Man a reality through their labor, passion, time, money and principles. The truth is that YOU are Burning Man, YOU are Black Rock City.

I want to thank the owner of for the opportunity to write this post. I also need to thank the Burners who took the time to read and respond to this post before I published it on this site. Dusty hugs,


From the unofficial Facebook Burning Man group:

“I thought that I’d share this with the group. (Note: If you’re a member of the tl;dr crew then just move along because these are not the droids you are looking for.)

So, yesterday I received an email from the Burning Man Project asking for a monetary donation. After I got some feedback from some fellow burners I sent the below email to the Burning Man Project.


I hope that this finds you well. I’ve taken some time to thoughtfully respond to your fundraising email regarding my potentially donating to the Burning Man Project. As a point of reference, I’ve known about Burning Man since late 1996 and it’s been a huge part of my life over the past 7 plus years. I’ve been burning since ’07 and I’ve been to Black Rock City 6 times in total. Since I’ve started burning the only 2 burns that I’ve missed were in ’09 and ’14, the former by choice and the latter due to my being unable to make the trip.

During each of my burns I’ve volunteered my time to groups such as The Lamplighters, Arctica, Center Camp Cafe, The Temple Guardians and a variety of theme camps and art projects. During that time I’ve made numerous monetary donations to groups such as Black Rock Arts Foundations and Black Rock Solar as well as to individual art projects and the 2013 Temple build. During my time as a burner I’ve repeatedly sold to other people Burning Man tickets that I did not need or could not use and when I did so I sold those tickets at below face value. On 4 occasions I’ve gifted Burning Man tickets to other people. In 2013 I helped half a dozen people I didn’t know acquire the Burning Man tickets they needed and I did so free of charge. I did that because Burning Man meant so much to me and I wanted to use my time and contacts to help other people make it HOME to Black Rock City.

At this point in time I have no desire to contribute a single cent to BMORG or any of it’s affiliated agencies. That is due to the fact the since the end of this year’s burn BMORG has hid from the Burner community as many of it’s members have eloquently and repeatedly voiced their concerns about the commodification of Burning Man via BMORG’s enabling of commodification camps such as Caravansicle, which was apparently run and funded in part by Jim Tananbaum, who currently serves on the Burning Man Board of Directors (BOD). There is ample and credible evidence on the Internet that indicates that various members of BMORG, the Burning Man founders and the Burning Man BOD have been engaged in behavior that runs contrary to Burning Man’s 10 Principles and to BMORG’s mission statement. Huge swaths of the Burner community are deeply concerned by the fact that there seem to be forces within the Burning Man power structure that are willing to commodify the event in the name of personal and organizational profit. In light of this controversy BMORG has maintained a level of radio silence that makes many Burners believe that BMORG is simply buying time to get its story straight about the Commodification Camp Controversy, buying time to let BMORG’s lawyers talk with the lawyers for various Commodification Camps and Burning Man BOD members. From this side of this situation BMORG seems both corrupt and inept beyond all belief. This situation makes the 2012 Ticket Lottery Fiasco seem like a small clerical error on the part of BMORG.

Before the Commodifcation Camp Controversy rose up I was identifying next year as one which I’d spend my summer working on the Temple project. I was planning on realizing a personal on-playa dream of mine, which is a mobile, deep playa pop-up bar. I was also planning on volunteering with the Resto team. While all those ideas are still meaningful to me Burning Man itself is no longer as meaningful to me as it was just 2 1/2 months ago when I watched large chunks of the burn via the official live video feed of the event. My lessened passion for the event is mostly due to my sense that elements within BMORG itself are willing to corrupt the event in the pursuit of profit and power and that BMORG is willing to ignore the concerns of the very community that builds Black Rock City and provides its creative content.

I took the time to write this email because I want you to know that the actions and inactions of various people within BMORG, the Burning Man founders and the Burning Man BOD have made me feel that the Burning Man Project is undeserving of my money. I sincerely wish that wasn’t the case. To be honest, it’s galling to receive a fund raising request from Burning Man at a time when BMORG is continuing to ignore the concerns of the Burner community. Like many other burners, I’m not buying BMORG’s company line that they are listening to the Burner community and (that BMORG) will get back to them as soon as possible. Whether or not my perception of that situation is accurate I have been given no indications that BMORG values the event and the community as much as the community values the event.

The Commodificaton Camp Controversy is not about poor burners versus rich burners; it’s about the fact that certain members of the Burning Man power structure have misused their positions in such a way that they have introduced class warfare into both the event and countless Burners psychological relationships with (both) the event and those who are meant to protect it. Shame on them for doing so. The event and community deserve better than that. Dusty hugs,

David / Sandstorm”

Here’s the email that was sent out by BMOrg:

From: Burning Man Project <>

Date: Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 8:00 AM

Subject: Now You Can Gift Burning Man to the World

Remember your first day at Burning Man? Remember how it felt to bring someone to Black Rock City for the first time? While not everyone can be on the playa every year,Burning Man’s year-round programs make the Burning Man experience accessible to all, year-round and across the globe.Burning Man strives to help people live more creative and connected lives year round and around the globe. Our programs in the arts, in civic engagement, and our investment in the leadership of a global network of regional events have inspired millions to embrace a shared value system that promotes thriving artistic endeavors, increased civic involvement, emerging social enterprise and stronger communities.Everything we do is driven by community participation, communal effort and gifting. While the annual event in Black Rock City is paid for by ticket sales, the work we do through our year-round programs depends on your generosity.Your support provides vital resources needed to keep our core programs running, such as our Regional Network which nurtures 240 members in 125 regions across 31 countries. Additionally, our Art Grants Programs provide close to $100,000 in grants for the creation and public exhibition of art in communities around the world and helps artists raise additional funds through fiscal sponsorships. Your generosity also supports our Civic Engagement Programs which provide leadership and funding of community based initiatives through micro grants and volunteer organizing.Together we can turn our growing potential into programs and experiences that will help transform people’s lives throughout the world. We need your support to make it happen. Together we can build a more creative and connected world.

Burning Man Project is a 501(c)(3) organization; all donations to Burning Man Project are tax-deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law.


catalyst for creative culture in the world


BMOrg’s Next Response [Updates]

They’re listening. They’ve been listening for months. Their response? Continuing to send their volunteers out online to cop the heat from the Burner community.

Now it’s the turn of Caveat Magister.


reblogged from

12 Shocking Revelations about ultra-rich Burning Man plug-and-play camps!

Dollar sign (reflective_metallic)I am as shocked as anyone that rich people came to Burning Man and behaved like rich people.

There’s only one explanation:  it’s a conspiracy, and it goes all the way to the top!  Yes!  The only way people with money could have possibly used that money to try and game the system is if Burning Man was directly involved!  In on it!  We all know it, but you don’t the half of it!

Here are the 5 biggest, most shocking, examples, of plug-and-play malfeasance – and the Burning Man organization’s complicity in it!

  • A group of prominent venture capitalists paid Larry Harvey $6 million to write them an extra-fun 11th principle that no-one else has.

What is it?  I don’t know!  You don’t know!  But it’s got to be amazing, and we’re not living by it!  Only they are!

  • The compound prepared for the Walton family, which owns Wall-Mart, actually paid its greeters

They brought out a bunch of senior citizens to tell everyone on the playa to have-a-nice-day!  They even hugged people!  And then were paid minimum wage!

  • Haliburton’s massive camp art project was really a derrick testing for oil under Black Rock City.

Sure it shot out flames, had a DJ, and Friday night’s Gushing Oil Party was awesome, but that’s not the point!

  • Billionaire owner Jeff Bezos’ theme camp never even came out in physical form, and instead was available only on Kindle.

Anyone who went is now under the terms and conditions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act!  On the plus side, there was no MOOP.

  • Warren Buffett slipped Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell $10 million to move Burning Man to Omaha, and fix it so nobody noticed.

That giant sculpture with the funky lights that everybody loved?  That was really the Nebraska statehouse.  We were so used!

And there’s MORE: []

We can’t let them get away with this!  Obviously we need to fix global income equality!  Or bitch about how Burning Man’s run!  Whichever is easier for us to do on the internet!



That’s how seriously they take the community’s concerns, Burners. They’re laughing at us. It’s all A Big Farce. The Simpsons guarantees them a steady stream of new tourists, so why should they be bothered with what a few thousand disgruntled Burners think?

The issue isn’t rich people at Burning Man. Rich people have always been going, and most of them are happy to be Burners like everyone else. They gift sound stages, or rides on their art cars, or food for hundreds or thousands, or a free bar, or an interactive art piece. They pick up after themselves, and pick up the MOOP of others. They take their bikes and their trash out with them when they leave.

The issue the community is most concerned about is the rise of Burner bingo-playing Commodification Campshow they got so many tickets, and how they blatantly disregard the Tin Principles. We’re concerned about lack of transparency in the dealings of the new “non-profit” that now owns the event. We’re concerned about the for-profit dealings of some members of BMOrg’s Board of Directors who are commercializing our culture, trying to make money for themselves off the volunteer labor and freely given gifts of tens of thousands of Burners.

If BMOrg really were listening to Burners, they’d know that. The comments on their blog are pretty frikking clear.

Except for a few nut cases trying to foment a revolution with Burning Man as the front lines of their “class war”, most Burners don’t care how much money the person next to them has. It’s about what you bring to the party. We’re all the same in a dust storm and in the porta-potties. Camping in an RV doesn’t stop the call of Nature happening when you’re far away from your camp; and having success in your career doesn’t somehow make you a “bad Burner”. Radical Inclusion never meant “poor hippies only”.

BMOrg would do well to respect the community’s concerns, instead of continuing with the party line of the last few months: misdirection, silence, and laughing it all off.

In 2011, 5000 bikes were left behind. image: WendeWho Thompson, flickr/Creative Commons

In 2011, 5000 bikes were left behind. image: WendeWho Thompson, flickr/Creative Commons

I bought my RV on eBay for $19,000. And we still take dumps in the portapotties.

I bought my RV on eBay for $19,000. It’s made it to the last 4 Burns. It didn’t magically make me never need to use a portapotty ever again. It’s nice to have a comfy bed, air conditioning, a fridge and an ice maker, and shelter from wind and dust storms. Plus the stereo CRANKS.


[Update 11/81/14 9:22am]

Caveat Magister has tried to explain himself with another post: Why Am I Making Fun of Burners. In it, he claims:

- he is speaking for himself, not the org

- he is against Commodification Camps

- the issue is gentrification, not Commodification Camps

Nice try, but it flies in the face of logic. BMOrg are the ones placing the Commodification Camps, giving them early access passes, scalping tickets to them all year while shutting STEP down early, and appointing people behind them to their Board of Directors.

The issue is Commodification Camps, not rich people or “the spectrum of turkeys”.

Perhaps soon, we will see a post at “Why BMOrg Are Not Taking Burners Seriously”. Because, gentrification is too big of a problem for them to fix in their temporary city? I call bullshit.

In the comments to Caveat’s initial post, Burner Dani said:

Maybe the plan all along was to dynamite the burn. Let some board member fuck everyone over. Lose all the volunteers. Piss off artists and the people that let’s face it, MAKE THE EVENT. And then slink off with millions in cash and not have to do again.

The man this year burned a long time. Long enough to say forever?

They still haven’t updated their web site to add the dates for 2015…just sayin’…

[Update 11/19/14 00:07 am]

Like Halcyon before him, Caveat has experienced the shitstorm, and changed his position with a mea culpa.

I’ve stopped trying to respond to comments both because I can’t keep up and because I don’t really think there’s a demand for “more Caveat.”

But I want to address what you’ve just brought up and say: I can’t speak for Answergirl or Will, but this one is all on me. No one set me up to be a “sacrificial lamb.” I’m the guy who said to himself “Hey, how about I write a funny list?” and then by God went all the way with it. I am wholly, and solely, responsible for whatever jackassery I write.

And while it is damn uncomfortable to be in the middle of an internet shitstorm, I don’t think I have any room to ask people to make it less personal. Because I led with a joke. I made fun of something that a lot of people are truly passionate about, and the fact that I hoped it would go over better isn’t an excuse. I didn’t start with a well-reasoned, gentle, epistle: I opened with a joke, I laughed at a topic they take seriously, and of course that makes it personal. I don’t have to agree with a word of it (or think I “deserve” it) … but I believe firmly that if you’re going to prank, you have to take responsibility when the prank goes wrong. I fucked this up, so, okay: people get to tell me I’m a terrible human being in a variety of ways. It sucks, but they mean it to suck, and I started it.

I really appreciate your consideration, though. Thank you.

And for what it’s worth: many commenters here are right. I didn’t “get it.” I thought the issue was about gentrification – and actually I think it still is. But (it seems to me) what the people screaming at me are screaming at me about is *accountability.* I might be right that the underlying issue is one of gentrification – that’s my opinion, I mean it, and I’m entitled to it. But when they say “you’re not hearing our complaint, you’re not getting what we’re talking about,” they were right. I missed their point.

Still no official word from BMOrg since their “coming soon” post more than a week ago.

Burner Metapony brought up an interesting parallel with a past situation – why comment directly, when you have a volunteer army of disposable pranksters at your disposal?

Art Versus Money

At the end of last month, BMOrg breathlessly announced all kinds of exciting news. They said:

(shhhh, just between you and us …) we’re working on a really really BIG project that will serve to tell the Burning Man story as it is today and into the future, and it’s gonna be RAD. You’ll know it when you see it.

On a more practical note, if you want to apply for a BRC Honorarium Art Grant for 2015, we’re changing the process, and rolling it out in mid-November … get ready, and watch for it!

It’s now past mid-November, getting into late November, and we’re still waiting. Waiting for the really really BIG RAD thing. Waiting for the new online Art Grant submission system. Waiting for BMOrg to respond to all the community concerns about Commodification Camps. Waiting for the theme (which rumor has it, is Circus). And waiting for everything else we’ve been promised that’s still “coming soon”.

I don’t know about you guys, but personally I’m sick of waiting. This event happens for a week once a year, it is now a quarter of a year since the last one. What do these people do all day, in their fancy offices with their $8.5 million year-round payroll?

The Jackedrabbit said:

jacked up rabbitY’know, used to be the months right after the Burn were pretty chill around BMHQ. It was kinda quiet. Well, that’s long gone, tell you what. Now that we’re working to foster Burning Man culture in the world year-round, there’s no downtime anymore. But hey, it’s pretty great work to be doing…our staffers are out in the field, giving lectures and talks about everything from the 10 Principles to community building to ritual, death and transformation, as part of our ongoing education program.

Perhaps the hard work they’re doing is really making some sort of difference to the world. But what about our party? What about our community? That’s what makes them $30 million a year. A little less focus on standing on a stage and talking about how great they are, and a little more focus on their customers would be nice. Especially since the unique thing about this event is we don’t buy a product that they put together for us; we make a product for them to sell.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Earlier this year, BMOrg finally announced what the 2014 Temple was going to be. Then, soon after, they announced that they’d changed their minds, and instead of Ross Asselstine’s Temple of Descendants, it was going to be David Best again with the Temple of Grace.

photo: John Goodman

photo: John Goodman. Art: David Best

We covered this in:

Temple Debacle Highlights Hypocrisy

Temple Deal Falls Through

Temple of Decent Dance?

So what really happened? Thankfully for us Burners, artist Ross Asselstine has “put his head above the parapets” and risked the eternal anger of BMOrg…by telling us the truth. And the truth is shocking.

Ross has published a paper Art Grants at Burning Man: A Way Forward outlining exactly what happened, and helpfully including some suggestions about what could be done to make things better. Let me summarize this long document, by highlighting some of the key issues.

Basically, BMOrg treats the artists like absolute shit. They ask for concessions that show their interests are purely about themselves, and their own potential to make long-term profits. They want the artists to sign their rights away in a completely one-sided contract, that shifts all the risk to the artist, and shifts almost all the upside to BMOrg. Worst of all, BMOrg can re-sell those rights to anyone, any time. If they want to sell Live Nation the rights to commercially exploit the art, so they can license them for Fiat commercials, the artist is powerless to stop them. If the artist sells their art, BMOrg takes a cut; if BMOrg profits from commercial use of the art, the artist gets nothing. And if the artist dies, BMOrg gets the art, but the estate is still saddled with all the liability.

The art grants total for 2014 was $800,000, split this year amongst 60 projects. That works out to an average of $13,333 per artist, or $12.70 per ticket. Grants above $20,000 are rare.

crude_2This is nowhere near enough to bring large art projects to the Playa, so all artists are forced to do fund-raising for at least half, probably more than three-quarters of their entire project costs. They are not allowed to use the words “Burning Man” or images of their previous art on the Playa in their fundraising efforts. The Art Grant works out to about the same as what Burning Man spends on Travel, Training and Costumes for themselves. Their $1 million+ “mysterious other” which BMOrg say goes to the BLM but the BLM says doesn’t, is more than BMOrg spends on funding art at their event.


image: Peter Ruprecht. Art: Bryan Tedrick

image: Peter Ruprecht. Art: Bryan Tedrick

Artists get told they have been awarded an “Art Honorarium Grant” about halfway through the burnal year, and only then do they get to see the contract they have to sign. Even if they sign it, they don’t get the money straight away – a big chunk of it, they don’t even get until months after Burning Man has ended. The pressure is on to complete their projects, so many just sign. Many artists have little in the way of tangible assets, so if they get sued, there is no real consequence. Or, if they can find someone to give them insurance (a process BMOrg provides no assistance in), the $1 million policy cap is enough to protect them. Artists are not generally experienced business people, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some don’t even realize what they are signing, in their haste to be “recognized” by Burning Man Arts. Most lawyers would advise their clients not to sign such a one-sided contract without requesting modifications; a $13k art grant barely gives the artists enough to pay a lawyer in the first place.

Some of the most egregious issues with this contract are:

  1. BMOrg profits if the artist sells their art outside Burning Man. BMOrg can commercially license the images to anyone for royalties, and sub-license or transfer this right to anyone. However, the artist can’t do that.
  2. When the artist dies, BMOrg owns their art.
  3. Artists must get separate insurance, despite BMOrg’s event policy and ticket liability disclaimer.
  4. In addition to #3, if there is any claim against BMOrg related to the art, Artists must pay that claim in its entirety, including all BMOrg’s legal costs and any payout from BMOrg’s insurance.
  5. Artists cannot provide use the grant to provide food for their workers – BMOrg are literally starving artists.
  6. Artists cannot pay themselves anything for dedicating a massive amount of their time to the Burning Man project.
  7. Artists must pay BMOrg a daily rate for use of equipment and lighting.
  8. If they score less than Green on the MOOP map, they can forfeit their entire grant. Meanwhile, $17,000/head Commodification Camps get a Red MOOP score, without any consequence.
  9. Artists don’t actually get all the money from the Grant before Burning Man. A large percentage of it is paid in November or even January, after the event. If the artists breach even one clause, they can forfeit their entire grant.
  10. The contract says “Integrity is the cornerstone of responsibility for every Recipient”, and yet there is no corresponding clause stating that BMOrg has a responsibility to act with integrity.
  11. It requires all the work to be done on the artist’s premises. This is patently absurd, since the art has to be constructed and configured on the Playa.

BMOrg deny commission or commercial licensing rights to the artists, while they claim rights to license the co-copyright, and also sub-license it. The whole contract seems designed to keep the artists poor, and therefore servile.

The issue of transferring insurance responsibility to the artist – with a blanket indemnity clause that says if BMOrg is sued, the artist will pay all the costs of BMOrg’s legal defense and any payout from BMOrg’s insurance too – seems to create a potential liability for anyone who funds an art project. The damaged party could go after those who provided the funds to enable the art, if the artist themselves is not the one with assets.

BMOrg has far more money and resources than any of the artists. They spend $1.4 million a year on lawyers and accountants, almost double what they spend on art. BMOrg are required by the BLM to have their own liability insurance for the event – in 2013, they spent $532,632 on insurance. It would be easy for them to say: “in exchange for all the commercialization rights we take from you, and can pass on to anyone, we will cover you with our insurance policy. If something happens at Burning Man, the injured party will need to deal with our insurance company and our legal team”. As well as protecting the artists who make the event so photogenic and media-worthy, this would protect the Burners who contribute to funding the art. Remember that to get a ticket, you “voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death”.

ticket 1998

Have you noticed how in all the media publicity surrounding the event, the photographers sometimes get credited, but the artists never do? Burners.Me are as guilty of that as anyone else, but how are we supposed to know who the artist is behind a given art car or art piece? It seems that BMOrg, who control the placement of the art, the funding of the art, and the commercial use of the images of the art, are in a position to know. They should make an effort to identify and promote the artists involved. How many people work full-time in their media department, 6? How many in their art department, 2? That’s a lot of resources that could be used to help promote the artists who slave away to create the photo ops.

Bliss Dance, by Marco Cochrane

Bliss Dance, by Marco Cochrane

Larry Harvey is fond of saying “no artist at Burning Man has ever signed their work” – a statement that I find a little hard to believe. But it seems that’s the way BMOrg wants it: they would prefer the artists to remain unknown, unfunded, starving, and unable to profit from their work – while BMOrg can use the same work to bring in multi-million dollar Commodification Camps, get articles written about them in the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg and Rolling Stone, and earn royalties for themselves from someone else’s hard work.

What really motivates these BMOrg people? Is it supporting the Arts – or controlling them? Is it creating a space for a temporary community to form – or profiting from that? Is it bringing rich people and poor people together in a level playing field – or elevating themselves to the level of the ruling class? Is it promoting artists – or promoting themselves?

Here’s some of what Ross said in describing how the process of being selected as the Temple artist went down:

The review period started two weeks later than the previous year and ran three weeks longer than expected. All art projects were going to start five weeks late. Considering the temple is one of the biggest pieces out there and 22 weeks was now 17 weeks, I was in fetal position on the couch anticipating the tightening workload in the coming months. I has set aside six months of my life to do this and it was going to be very, very hectic if the piece was selected. Friends called …..“we know a secret!”, major artists invited me to parties to celebrate the award weeks before I had heard formally. I curled up on the couch, watching the time tick away waiting for a call. WTF. 

On March 23rd I got an email to call Burning Man and later that day during a phone call….notification of the award. I was thrilled…The small core crew I had listed on my submission was ecstatic. We laughed, felt that tingle of excitement and looked at each other knowing we had all done big things before and were ready to make this the best it could be. We raised glasses and then went at it hard. The entire “Temple Crew” was behind us and we ran like heck. 

I received the art grant contract a week later on April Fools Day. I had read contracts almost every day my entire career. The principle is not complex: two people agree to something and it’s written down…The Art Grant Contract was horribly one-sided. April Fools.

I had previously contacted insurance companies that knew Burning Man and now that I had something to insure, they had something real to price. There was nothing out there for over a million dollars in coverage. This was a building that would be occupied by hundreds 24/7 for a week in a harsh and challenging environment.

…I asked Burning Man for help. Nothing…I read the contract through again. My god, it was both silly in numerous places and so one-sided to be laughable. It was not just one issue, it was just plain weird on many issues. When things are badly written, you can almost see the person typing extemporaneously to cover every fear, every situation and then without proofing it…just pushing it across in an email to you. Bad contracts are almost always evidence of an author that is afraid or in over their head. 

This contract had evidently been around for a very long time. It read like it had never been refined or negotiated. After another two weeks of going full blast, I asked for help from Burning Man again. Two of us went to the offices in San Francisco and sat opposite four BM folks. There are meetings you attend in your life where nothing really happens. This was one. I walked them through my understanding of the personal risk I would be taking: my house and family’s wellbeing would be behind the very, very small amount of insurance and a thin LLC. I needed help. I tabled numerous common options and they were all rejected….the other side of the table did not care about the “artist”, because they never had to. They were all paid, insured and none of them were taking a dollar of risk. I was at the wrong table. It was actually all about me now. It was not about providing a place of respite for 70,000 people, it was not about our team fundraising the 60-70% of the funds, it was not about six months off and months to build the piece. If anything went wrong, there was no other side of the table other than lawyers: it was about me all by myself, all alone, and a contract with my signature on it. Or not.

So there you have it. No help for the artist. People who earn a salary working for BMOrg, and have no personal dollars on the line beyond that, shifting all the risk onto someone else and their family.

This contract has never been made public, before Ross’s whistleblowing. Now we know why. Will the new “online system” let artists see what they’re signing up for, before they submit their intellectual property with their “Letter of Intent”?

Ross Asselstine: Burner hero

Ross Asselstine: Burner hero

Ross has suggested a number of very reasonable modifications to the contract, which would make it more fair and balanced. If BMOrg cared about artists, they would listen. Just like if they cared about their community, they would listen. Not just listen: act, accept responsibility for their wrong-doing and make changes to improve the situation going forward. That would show us that they heard us.

Instead, they’ll probably say “hundreds of artists have signed this contract, so we don’t care about one artist complaining just because we wouldn’t change the terms for him”.

Is fairness and a level playing field important to this community? Or should BMOrg be free to exploit everyone for money, wherever they see fit?

Ross says:

How can Burning Man become, and set the highest standard as, the best self-expression and art event anywhere in the world, by having the best support, grant process and environment for artists anywhere in the world?

I believe the “self-expression” portion of the question has been achieved. There is quite simply no other event like Burning Man. So many people have worked years to make it what it is. It’s unique, and the world comes to Burning Man for that reason. I think the answer to the “art event” portion of the question is how does the event move forward and develop the following items:
1) A transparent and equitable form of agreement for artists.
2) Adequate support, funding and an improved art department.
3) The best participant culture that respects and honors artists.
4) A fair and easily understandable process for use of artwork post BM.

Many attendees think that all artists at BM are there because they love all things BM. Most are there because it has a unique culture and unique prominence for large or unusual art. What is linked with this opportunity is a horrible  contract and huge burdens on artists. Almost every artist out there would not sign the contract if it was for any other venue. If put succinctly if not crassly: the audience is the bait and the contract is the hook. It’s that bad.

It’s actually simple to make it fair.

I’ve left the worst of the legal clauses to the end of this story, for the sake of readability. Some have Ross’s comments attached; any emphasis and [comments in bold] are from Burners.Me. Read the whole contract here.

1.1. Integrity is the cornerstone of responsibility for every Recipient receiving an Honorarium Grant. This Agreement sets a base level expectation of responsibility for Recipient, and Burning Man expects that Recipient will adopt integrity as his or her modus operandi. Recipient is considered accountable for every aspect of the Art and shall serve as Art Project Lead.

2.3. Recipient will also furnish one or more high-resolution Art Image(s) or drawing both as a digital file as well as a printout, to be used by Burning Man to help inform and promote the Art, both before and after the Event. The Art shall be deemed approved upon Recipient and Burning Man’s dated signatures on this Agreement. (This is fine except, the question is what happens after the event. Many artists feel abused by giving up all rights on a partial grant to art before final payment is even made. Most grants are not fully settled until November or as late as January. Really,… that late.)

2.4. Any materials prepared and submitted to Burning Man, including the Art Plans, maquettes, drawings, and models, may be retained permanently by Burning Man for possible exhibition and other uses. (This silliness is in direct conflict with the submission text that says you get everything back. This whole thing should come out. What I don’t get is they just demand it rather than requesting temporary use or to pay for it…)

3. The Recipient shall retain title to and ownership of the Art including all copyrights associated with the Art. Recipient including all of Recipient’s collaborators, if any, grants to Burning Man and Burning Man’s sub-licensees and assigns the following rights:
(This started out pretty good, but damn….here goes the benefactor wanting crazy rights to art of which they only paid a small portion of; it’s like saying you can develop the formula to Coca-Cola but anyone in the universe can make the stuff for free.)
3.1 To display the Art at the Event and to take still or moving photographs, video, digital, audio, or other recordings of the Art at the Event and of Recipient, including Recipient’s team, engaged in the manifestation of the Art at the Event.
3.2 A nonexclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free license to: (a) copy, distribute, publicly display, create derivative works based on, and otherwise use any photographs, video or other images of the Art in connection with the Event or any Burning Man related project; and (b) sublicense the license in subsection (a) to third parties in connection with a Burning Man related project or a third party project after informing and receiving feedback from Recipient’s Art and/or the principles and culture Burning Man. This Agreement does not limit the rights and permissible uses that Burning Man would have independent of this Agreement, including rights under the U.S. Copyright Act or other applicable intellectual property laws
(This is so absurd it’s laughable. An art event, created by artists, owned by artists actually has this in a contract? WTF!? I don’t know how all this crept into this contract but it’s the worst behavior of any benefactor could ever exhibit: they give a partial grant and they want everything possible and anything conceivable. The whole pile of shit has to come out. If an artist feels great at the end of the process….maybe they can give something back to the benefactor after final payment. That is an event based on gifts. What happens in this wonderfulness of text is everything shitty about what happens to artists in the real world, it does not have to be part of BM at all. BM will go on without this. If someone wants to make a movie or coffee table book, they can get BM’s permission for on-playa activities and then go get a license from artists that may have not yet given some limited third party license to BM already. BM will exist without documentaries, books and news
articles that don’t have the time to seek approval and credit artists.)
[note that the way this is worded, Royalty-Free means BMOrg doesn't pay the Artist any royalties; it in no way precludes them from charging royalties to any sub-licensees]
3.3 Crediting Burning Man for Grant – If the Art is ever exhibited or written about publicly, including on Recipient’s own website, Recipient shall credit Burning Man for the Grant and its help in making the creation of the Art possible and will use its best efforts to ensure in all materials, including any program description, publicity, signs or other materials disseminated to viewers or the public, the statement “This artwork made possible due to a grant from Burning Man.”
(The thing that sucks about this is the reverse is not practiced by BM: pictures all over their website with little if no visible credit to the artists. They let film crews loose and little credit is given to artists. You can’t have it one way folks!)
6.5 Recipient for itself and for its collaborators, affiliates, employees, volunteers, contractors, funders, representatives and agents (collectively, “Releasors”), assumes all risk of injury or loss and hereby releases, waives, discharges and covenants not to sue Burning Man and its officers, directors, employees, collaborators, affiliates, volunteers, contractors, funders, representatives and agents (collectively, “Releasees”) from all claims and liability, that is or may be owed to Releasors, Releasors’ personal representatives, assigns, heirs and next of kin, for any and all loss or damage or claims of any
sort, including on account of personal injury to Releasors, including death, or for injury to Releasors’ property of any nature (including real and personal property), related to the construction, installation, transportation, display, use including participants’ interaction with or climbing on, removal or clean up of the Art at the Event, or use of the Art Plans and Art Images.
6.6 Releasors shall be liable for and shall indemnify, defend and hold Releasees harmless against any claim, suit, loss or damage, actual or threatened, valid or invalid, and from any damages, judgments, liabilities, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, direct or indirect, arising out of or in connection with the creation, construction, installation, transportation, display, interaction with, climbing on, removal, clean up or other uses of the Art, including limitation any claims concerning personal injury, loss or death, damage or injury to personal or real property, or otherwise suffered by
Releasors, participants, spectators or others.
8.8 Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) may offer fiscal sponsorship to Burning Man funded Honorarium art projects. The fiscal sponsorship program would assist Recipient in its efforts to raise an approved amount of funds, in addition to Grant, over a specific timeline. The fiscal sponsorship organizer will retain a 10% fiscal sponsorship fee from all funds raised from the program
[note most investment banks take a cut between 2% and 5% for helping raise money] 
10 Depending on the nature of the Art, the Performance Deposit shall be 15% to 30% of the Grant. If Burning Man supplies the Recipient with Fuel, Fire Wood, Water, Decomposed Granite, use of Light Towers and/or Scissor Lift or other materials or services for the current Event, the charge for these materials or services will be deducted from the total Grant and subtracted from any Performance Deposit due the Recipient. Burning Man shall mail to Recipient any remaining Performance Deposit owed by November 15, 2014 following the current Event.
(the event ends on the first weekend of September, BM holds artist’s grant money for 2 and a half months?….no, let’s settle up within one month like the real world, hard as that may seem.)
11.5 Recipient shall be required to Check-Out with a member of the Art Team prior to departure from the Event. At such time, a member of the Art Team will survey the installation site to ensure that the site is clean – as determined in the sole discretion of the Art Team member. If the installation site is not clean to Burning Man’s satisfaction, Recipient shall continue to clean the art installation site until approved by the Art Team member.
(A huge problem is that the artist has to clean up moop from the attendees. This should not be solely on the artist. Mutual responsibilities would be fair. Ten feet beyond the piece can be on the artist and they rest is on the community.)
14.  If the Art is sold before the Event, the Recipient must fulfill all commitments set forth in this Agreement including the creation, completion, delivery, installation, display at designated site, removal, Leave No Trace and final report at the current year Event, and shall inform Burning Man of the sale at the time of sale. If the Art is sold, before or after the Event, Recipient shall pay to Burning Man 10% of the gross sale proceeds (calculated before any deduction of commissions, taxes or other costs) 
18.3  In the event of death, this Agreement shall terminate effective upon the date of death. Unless such delivery is waived by Burning Man, the Recipient’s executor shall deliver to Burning Man the Art in whatever form or degree of completion it may be at the time, and Burning Man may display it as a tribute to the Recipient, and shall acknowledge that it is incomplete.
[imagine what it would cost Marco Cochrane's estate to transport Bliss Dance, Truth is Beauty, and all his other giant sculptures to a location of BMOrg's choosing]
18.4  In the event that this Agreement is terminated by Burning Man due to Recipient’s death, incapacity or for any other reason, Sections 3, 4, 6 and 13-20 shall survive the Agreement’s termination.
(Look up from your computer…guess what Section 3 is?! THAT”S RIGHT….all that crap about licenses to your copyright. Section 6: Safety and Liability. Section2 13-20: ….shit…what did they take out if all that crap is still in, hmmm, Section 1.1 is Integrity…..that does not apply. I need a beer).
[Although the Art is now owned by BMOrg, the late artist's estate still has all the liability for anything that might happen, even if the art is displayed outside Burning Man.]
Read the full contract here.

What are BMOrg trying to achieve? Is this just a poorly drafted contract, that remains that way because no-one has ever challenged it before Ross? Or do they really want to exploit the artists for commercial gain? I would encourage everyone to go to Ross’s web site and read the comments of support he’s received from our community. What BMOrg does to respond to this criticism will speak volumes – as will their silence.
Hopefully, the new Online Arts system and the new Burning Man Arts department (which absorbed BRAF and all the cash they didn’t distribute to artists) will be a step in the right direction.