Burning Man Org to Burners: We Own You

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People who don’t know what Burning Man is tend to assume that it’s just another festival; a place where consumers go to enjoy passive entertainment arranged by event promoters. Burning Man’s not like that, and it never has been.

What would we have, if the only work that got done out there on the playa was what the Org either paid for or did themselves? If there were no volunteers, no independent artists or laborers or engineers or architects or visionaries or weirdos or pranksters or sex deities or bartenders? Nobody out there just doing their thing?

Attendee participation is fundamental to Burning Man, and it is what provides us with 99% of the shade, art, diversions, exposed flesh, alcohol, and other critical resources to be found in Black Rock City. Even most of what the Org provides gets built, torn down, and cleaned-up after with volunteer labor, and all of it gets paid for with money we give them. Imagine if all those burners who put all that time and money and effort into being amazing on the playa – all the people who aren’t part of the Org or paid by them – were suddenly replaced in the middle of the burn by passive attendees looking to be entertained and vended to in exchange for their ticket purchase. There would be no Burning Man. There wouldn’t even be a festival; instead, we’d have a major tragedy in an artless, corpse-littered desert wilderness: Thirsting Man. Mummifying Man. What-the-Fuck-are-You-Doing-Here Man.

In short, it’s a huge mistake to give the Org too much credit for Burning Man. Burning Man co-founder John Law understood that; back in 2007, he wrote:

Burning Man, since it’s inception has depended upon the gratis efforts of many. Since my leaving active organizing of the event in 1996, it has become a huge business generating more than 8 million dollars a year. Some people are paid quite well for their efforts. If the organizing core of the event believes, as they say quite clearly in their literature that the BM concept is a true movement, and has an opportunity to really make a difference in peoples lives and ideas around community, the arts, etc., then they shouldn’t have a problem releasing the protected trademarks Burning Man, Black Rock City, etc to the public domain where ANYONE can then BE Burning Man. Doing this will not impede their ability to manage and organize the event, sell tickets, pay themselves, and any artists, vendors and tradesmen as they choose using ticket sales receipts.

The only thing that would change is that NO ONE would be able to capitalize on “Burning Man” by licensing the name or selling it or using it as an advertising pitch. There is no other reason to retain these legal ownership titles other than to capitalize on their brand value at some later date.

I was defrauded by Larry and Michael’s actions. I hope they choose to do the right thing and give Burning Man to the people.”

John Law

John Law

Of course they didn’t give Burning Man to the people. They settled with John Law on undisclosed terms instead, and they’ve been jealously guarding the brand they officially own ever since. . . and that eight million dollars? It’s now up to over thirty million.

Yes, I said “jealously guarded,” and there’s no hyperbole in that. . . if anything, it’s an understatement. In 2009, digital civil rights watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation slammed the Org for their ticketing terms and conditions, saying “It’s bad enough that some companies routinely trot out contracts prohibiting you from criticizing them, but it’s another thing altogether when they demand that you hand over your copyrights to any criticisms, so that they can use the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to censor your own expression off the Internet.”Electronic Frontier Foundation

Having recognized that the Org may very well have good intentions behind their terms and conditions, the EFF still notes that “the collateral damage to our free speech is unacceptable.”

The Org’s defense to this is that their over-reaching and draconian measures are necessary to protect Black Rock City culture. Some would say that by ‘protect’ they must mean “reserve it for their own exploitation.” The most charitable interpretation I can make of the Org’s response to the EFF is something like “we don’t trust burners to do it themselves, and we lack the imagination to come up with a solution that isn’t a massive violation of peoples’ rights all year long, everywhere.”

The corporation that runs Burning Man is slated to become a non-profit, but this has not yet happened, and it won’t necessarily make things better, or curtail the ability of board members to skim off massive paydays for themselves. For now, the Org is still a non-transparent, for-profit corporate entity whose board members primarily serve their own interests behind closed doors. With most of their operating costs paid for out of the pockets and sweat glands of volunteers, they control tens of millions of dollars per year in ticket revenue alone. . . yet they seem to have zero respect for the people who not only give them that ticket revenue, but also literally build and painstakingly strike the event that makes it possible for them to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of tickets in the first place.

Zero respect doesn’t mean zero interest. Off-playa, the Org seems all too eager to establish and maintain a Disney-like control over every aspect of burner culture they can get their hands on, a process that effectively quashes the very freedom and can-do DIY attitude that burners thrive on and that the Org themselves love to trumpet as their greatest triumphs.

Given the amount of lip service that the Org gives to the idea of spreading the culture as widely as possible, it seems both hypocritical and graspingly self-serving to exert the kind of stranglehold that they do on ‘their’ trademark. That kind of control freakism is par for the course, though. Regionals must adhere to a strict set of policies and rules set by the Org, just to be ‘officially’ recognized as nothing more than organized groups of burners. Try to organize anything bigger than a living room sleepover while self-identifying as Burning Man enthusiasts, and you’re asking for unwelcome attention from the vultures in the Org’s legal department and their mania for protecting the Burning Man brand from the very people who give that brand its value.

The Org even has an official set of rules for online communities, and they are both dismayingly extensive and incredibly oppressive. Rudeness, vulgarity, being disrespectful, being snide, being overly-critical of the Org, or even wandering off-topic are just a small part of what is explicitly forbidden.

“They want burner-oriented Facebook groups to enforce all those rules for them. So naturally, nobody wants their group to be official,” says Michael Watkiss, an administrator of and participant in several such groups. “The official rules are just way too strict.”

The words of John Law echo in our ears: “There is no other reason to retain these legal ownership titles other than to capitalize on their brand value at some later date.” The Org’s death grip on the Burning Man trademark is a visible sign of their preparation of new revenue streams – at the culture’s expense – in order to maintain and increase the personal income of board members in the face of their imminent reconfiguration as a non-profit organization.

There are a surprising number of Burning Man groups and pages on Facebook, most of them unofficial, created and administered by volunteer burners. They range from the Org’s own heavily-moderated Facebook page to various Regional or special-interest groups, including one called “Burning Man Sucks.”

Photo by Michael Macor

Photo by Michael Macor

The administrators of these groups are, of course, unpaid volunteer burners. To one degree or another, they strive to keep their groups lively, useful, and relevant. One thing plagues them all: advertising. People show up in their groups and post ads, aka ‘spam.’

The largest Burning Man group on Facebook, with some 28,000 members, has this problem all the time. “We have to be constantly on the watch for spam,” says Watkiss. “We’re a decommodification zone, no advertising allowed. The only exceptions are for events and fundraising that directly benefit either recognized Regionals, or art projects that are destined for the playa.”

It’s easy enough for the admins to just delete the totally unrelated marketing blather that washes up in our online communities, but some of it isn’t totally unrelated, and is posted by burners themselves. Somewhere between the exceptions made by Watkiss’ group and the realm of outright corporate spam, there lies a grey zone of burner-oriented advertising by and for individual burners. Deleting a corporate sales pitch for diet lard, the latest model of Pootmobile, or low easy payments on plutonium siding for houses is trivial; deleting a fellow burner’s post in which he’s trying to sell the yurts he builds can cause friction.

“It’s often cut-and-dried,” says Watkiss, “but the grey areas are very, very grey indeed. That can really generate a lot of anger.”

Recently, a small group of volunteer administrators like Michael Watkiss put their heads together over an improved solution to the spam problem that wouldn’t shut out individual burners from making contact with each other and buying and selling things. “A guy from one of the Regional groups told us that his people opened a second Facebook group strictly for buying and selling things to each other,” Watkiss explains. “It seemed like a great idea, so we talked about starting one for burners all over the world to use. It keeps the buying and selling out of the main groups, but gives it a place to happen where we can still guard against people from outside the culture trying to market random junk to us. Decommodification is wonderful in its place, but it shouldn’t mean that burners are forbidden from ever having any commerce with each other, anywhere. This way the burners on Facebook get their burner swapmeet if they want it, without polluting the main groups with commerce.”

The charter of the new group, dubbed “Burning Man Classifieds,” reads as follows:

This group is given to the burner community as a place to freely post any appropriate advertisements we wish. Funding an art project? Tell us about it. Need a new roommate, or a job, or a car, or a rideshare, or some exotic materials for your art? Try us. Want to sell something? Give us your best pitch. You can even beg here, if you think your cause is good enough to garner donations. You can even look for a date! What you can’t post: MLM pyramid schemes/scams, obvious attempts to market to us from outside our community, and blatant trolling. Everything else is fair game; the admins will use their best judgment in sorting the wheat from the chaff.

PLEASE THINK BEFORE YOU POST. This is a worldwide group of people. If you post an ad looking for a room to rent, for instance, then we need to know where you are. Not the intersection, the city and State (or Province, etc.). Try not to make extra work for the volunteer administrators, or we might assume you’re a troll.

If you administer a Burning Man related group and would like to help us out, get in touch with one of our admins so we can add you to the team.

Just a week after the new group’s inception, the Org seems to have taken notice in a big way. “Apparently, they’ve been sending thinly-veiled legal threats to one of the administrators,” says Michael Watkiss. “They don’t want the group to use the phrase ‘Burning Man’ because they say it violates their trademark.”

Trademark infringement is not so simple, though. In most cases of alleged infringement, the acid test is consumer confusion. If the defendant isn’t selling a product that consumers might think came from a different manufacturer because of the trademark, then generally speaking, no infringement has occurred. There are also protections for non-commercial use of trademarks, and for parodies.

Michael Watkiss: “I don’t understand why the Org would think they have a leg to stand on. Nobody owns the group, and nobody is making money by running the group. It’s just a place for burners to have a funky little swap meet with each other. The group itself is not a commercial enterprise, and nobody is going to confuse a Facebook group with a giant week-long arts festival in the desert. The idea that there’s some kind of trademark infringement going on that requires their legal team to swoop in is just silly.”

Holle had to change his plates from BURN BRC to BRC LUV

Holle had to change his plates from BURN BRC to BRC LUV

According to Watkiss, the Org’s legal team suggested that a name change to “Burner Classifieds” would be sufficient to call off the dogs. . . but sadly, most people – including the State – still think ‘burner’ means someone who smokes a lot of pot. “It makes it harder for our tribe – burners – to find Burning Man communities that aren’t controlled by the Org, and encourages both dilution and demonization of our communities by making outsiders think we’re all about drugs.”

Watkiss’ complaint seems to hold water.

“I ordered ‘BURNBRC’ license plates from the State of Nevada for my pickup truck,” burner Jawsh ‘Sparrow’ Holle told me. “They printed the registration that way on the spot, but then the State sent me a letter saying they wouldn’t issue the plates because the word ‘burn’ was drug-related, and I had to change my request. I asked for ‘BRC LUV’ instead.”

Trademark law protects people using phrases that can’t be adequately expressed with an alternate phrase, especially for non-commercial uses, and particularly when there’s no consumer confusion likely. The Org’s attempts to exert total control over the term “Burning Man” aren’t just contrary to everything they say about fostering community and culture, they’re also unsupported by trademark law.

“It’s all been very politely worded,” points out Watkiss, “but the implicit threat in these messages from the Org is very clear. It’s the iron hand in the velvet glove. If they can’t be in complete control, the Org wants to marginalize us. . . and we’re burners!”

24 comments on “Burning Man Org to Burners: We Own You

  1. Pingback: Shark-Jumping: OK, VIPs and Music Guides: Not OK | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

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  3. Keep in mind that bars must tell you they use “Pepsi” when you ask for a Rum and Coke, because CocaCola trademarked “coke,” and if coke becomes too synonymous with cola, they lose their trademark to “coke” (see “linoleum” for a classic example on that).

    While the org is making it difficult for us to name and promote our communities and causes as we please, if given the chance, someone will commodify our culture of decommodification. Fashion magazines touting that steampunk look? They’d rather say “burner look” because of all the nuances of feeling and meaning that has because of our culture. “Steampunk” doesn’t allude to or imply anything near as dreamy/evocative/whatever. (Marketing spends a lot of money trying to convince you that their product will make you look or feel unique, and slapping “burner” on it could be a really easy way for the saavy first few to do that).

    How would you feel if you opened the Sears catalog and their premium ski goggles were called “Burning Man Goggles” to appeal to moden hemmingway-loving, pottery barn aficianados? Thanks to trademarks, that won’t happen.

    I find it curious that individuals concerned about use of ticket money have not cited any figure from the org’s financials, which are easily found online. I, an accountant, find them satisfactorily transparent.

    • Drink bourbon And Dr. Pepper instead. great on playa…you can have my reccomendation free……have some today! Ranger Starrman

  4. The issue of trademark infringement can be traversed by changing the name to “Classifieds for Burning Man.” But a more appropriate response might be to burn the Org.

  5. The first Christians were communal and pacifist the next thing you know they have taken over the Roman state (a perfect hierarchy) and are conquering and converting by sword. Burning Man has started out with the best of intentions and has been beautiful but it looks like the corruption of money and it’s power may be settling in. And we Burners have no say in the process as the Org is a corporate board (who are the owners according to Harvey) and we and the many volunteers who create Burning Man each year, have no vote.

  6. Pingback: Burners.Me – Burning Man® and the Old Switcheroo » The Regionauts

  7. Pingback: Burning Man® and the Old Switcheroo | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

  8. Hilarious.

    The more I think about it, and the more I survey the rhetoric from within the “burner culture.” The more satisfied I am with the blatant irony of this year’s theme.

    For some time I convinced myself that the org had fully jumped the shark and that the whole idea the was unraveling into something very much alien to it’s original concept. But, the more I contemplate the whole event, including my involvement, the more I realize it is the peripheral culture that has grown form the event which put the shark in the tank, built the skis, and said “Yeas! costume yourself in leather behind that boat and go for it!”

    The event is not the problem, the org is not the problem, the attendees are not the problem. The problem is we have lost sight of the fact that this wonderful event grew from a very whacky desire to act autonomously and encourage others to do so. The event was, and to some degree still is, a playground for that to occur.

    The “culture” that has grown from that seems to me like monkeys banging on coconuts wondering why they don’t have airplanes.

    Maybe we should take a step back a question why we participate in the first place and worry less about what the man behind the curtain is really doing.

  9. There is no reason Burning Man should cost anywhere near what it does. What does BMOrg spend on phone calls like $50k? An that’s not counting their internet bill! I suppose they don’t pay themselves exorbitant salaries, but they clearly take a “spare no expense” attitude.

    Ideally, there should other festival on the playa which people run as non-profit organizations, run more inexpensively than Burning Man, and attempt to provide more than BMOrg does. If one could break into the tens of thousands of participants range, and attract popular burner camps, cars, etc. as well as dissatisfied burner camps like Opulent Temple, then it’d be hard for BMOrg not to take a longer look at their books and fix the problems.

  10. I guess I see it different. I see the idea of a super charged art festival meets family reunion, as someones art that turned into a reality. Its as if the BMORG invented the door nob. To be jealous or resentful of someone wanting to be able to support themselves with the art they created is every artists dream. Even the people who built the idea behind a place where artists can go out and build whatever the hell their minds and souls can envision and be respected, hey, yup! thats marketable!
    And the most REMARKABLE experience I’ve ever had in all my life. Go BMORG!
    I really wish people weren’t so worried where their dollars went.
    Its spent well, VERY well.

      • I don’t care if its spent on 24k gold lined asswipe. Do I feel like my $ is well spent on my “trip”? Hell yes! I’ve met the largest group of like minded,artistic,caring,family eccentric,amazing, out of this world, generous, beautiful,(list goes on n on) set of human civilization one could ever hope for. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of so many art projects from the conception to the reality, I’ve been blessed with having one of the best bar theme camps for 5 yrs.(The Booby Bar). I’m so sorry that some of the attendee’s are more worried about the money involved rather then a gift of mankind that no price could be attached too.

      • Maybe you should read the article again, Pliney. It’s not about where the money goes so much as it’s about the way the Org threatens and hobbles the culture. You can get all blissed-out and wear blinders if you like but some of us have a more genuine love for the culture than your “gee isn’t the event great” gushings, and would like to see the culture thrive independently of both the event and any corporate oversight.

        It’s easy not to care much when you only burn one week a year.

      • Guess I read: Some people are mad they cant use the Burningman symbol without prior agreement with its artist(establishment). As if it belong to everyone……um, it doesn’t.

      • Oh and…um, Burn one week a year? Ask anyone, who is Piney…aka Pinemom? Please don’t pick on people in a “burner then thou way”…not cool dude.
        Just cause i haven’t been Burning since 1986 doesn’t mean I haven’t been burning….since 1966!

      • Hey, you’re the one who started blathering about the money spent on your ‘trip.’

        Either it’s a trip to the desert for you, or it’s a lifestyle. Stop moving the goalposts.

  11. As an act of “fuck-you” hubris, John Law’s “stick BM in the public domain” screed is kind of inspired but anyone who takes it at face value that doing so would prevent Burning Man from being “used in an advertising pitch” would have to be described as laughably naive. And anyone with even a basic understanding of trademark would recognize that stating the “only” reason to hold titles is for some later cash-out is again excellent hubris but also basically bullshit. A reason? Possibly. The only reason? Pity the fool that believes that.

  12. I have my own example of this going on right now. I recently started a group (on Facebook, and hoping to spread it beyond) called Burners For A Cure. The intent is to provide a forum for Burners (and their loved ones) facing cancer to help each other out – on Playa and Off Playa, whether its by sharing information, support, resources, volunteering together in cancer research fundraising activities, etc. I think the possibilities are endless once a bunch of Burners start getting together…

    As you can imagine, I’ve been in communication with the IP Manager at BMORG. She has been very friendly and supportive of the idea, while at the same time trying to protect what is considered the IP of the BMORG. The one thing that they have requested is that the logo not contain any rendering of The Man.

    I won’t go to the assumption of bad intentions by the BMORG, I continue to believe they have good intentions, but are stuck between what they perceive as the realities of the default world and the values of the playa. In the default world, I am a business person, and I appreciate the need for a business to protect its brand. As a Burner, your quotes of John Law do resonate. It is interesting to think about the possibilities if they took the approach of allowing the logo and name to be largely public domain.

    Thanks for a thoughtful article.

    • Thanks for sharing this with us. Frankly I’m not sure how much of what the Org does that is detestable stems from greed, and how much stems from arrogant incompetence with good intentions. As a corporation, they seem to be the most extreme example ever of how the Peter Principle works.


  13. bmorg will destroy and rape the Playa all for the love of money the number one priniciple all the rest is BS

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