Last week we posted some aerial photos of Burning Man. The post was not very popular, being viewed only about 1300 times in total – most other posts here get ten times more views than that in a day. Perhaps Burners are all subscribers to Business Insider, and are reacting to the over-saturated coverage that rag has provided about our event.
The photos were taken by Jim Urquhart, a 3-time Burner who works under contract with Thomson Reuters. On August 8, 2012, Jim came to our Facebook page and said this about the cover photo we display (in which the Reuters copyright was acknowledged):
Jim Urquhart @sam bissell- I shot this pic last year while on assignment for Reuters. Here is a link to it.http://straylighteffect.com/2011/10/burning-man-2011/ I will be back again this year to cover the Burn.
The photos were published in Business Insider. We provided links to both publications, and credited the photos to both the photographer and Reuters. We quoted some of the words from Jim’s blog, and gave him some props. The links to the photos loaded them from the Business Insider site.
It seems this was not good enough. Reuters makes money selling their photos to magazines like Business Insider. And Burning Man’s photo policy is suddenly meaningless, just like how Google is allowed to make all the money they want off any Burning Man videos people post to their wholly-owned subsidiary YouTube.
That’s right Burners. Want to use a photo taken at Burning Man for your camp fundraiser? Want to use the words “Burning Man”? No way. Want to link to someone else’s YouTube video on your Art Car web site? No way. Want to take photos of the event we make, and sell them to anyone you can? That’s perfectly fine, as long as you’re a big corporation with a big legal department. Want to make a movie about Burning Man? That’s perfectly fine, as long as you pay BMOrg. Want to do a Vogue or Town and Country glamour shoot? That’s perfectly fine, as long as you pay BMOrg $150,000.
What’s the big deal? Are Reuters losing money from our free blog, which discusses stories published by others on the Internet? Don’t they have enough money already? How much do they really need to milk out of Burning Man – and how can Burners.Me promoting their coverage hurt that cash cow?
Who actually owns the Business Insider photos? Is it them, because they pay Reuters? Is it Burning Man, because their photo policy states that they own the copyright?
He’s a fan of Burners.Me, but not so much that he wants to share photos with Burners. You’ll have to go to his customers for that.
We messed with the wrong people, huh? What happened to Radical Inclusion, Burner Jim? What happened to Gifting? Decommodification? Civic Responsibility?
He lays down the law:
The law, as in one law for the corporations making money off photos of our party. Another law for us Burners, spending our own money to make the party.
Money? Oh yes, Jim was quick to tell us that Reuters is getting paid beaucoup bucks for this:
it is entirely inappropriate and in fact totally against U.S. copyright laws for you to be copying and pasting our images and text from a news organization’s website who has paid properly to license them (Business Insider) and publishing them on your own blog without any licensing rights from Reuters.
In response to Jim’s email, we asked Reuters if we could license the photos. The contact Jim provided was on vacation, and the contact her auto-responder provided us didn’t get back to us. So it seems that this is maybe not even about money – it’s about power, and the need for Reuters to flex their muscles against the little guy. I hope the two Jims enjoyed kicking Burners.Me, and I hope in the future when they come again to exploit our efforts for their own financial benefit, the Burner community welcomes them with open arms.
It’s great to see that capitalism is still alive and well in this country, and Burning Man continues to take it to new extremes of hypocrisy. “Decommodification” and “Gifting” are just rules for Burners to obey, they’re not actually valuable principles to the Burning Man organization. Not something they look for in their business partners. “We own the intellectual property”, and “we can sell our intellectual property to anyone we want and stop everyone else using it” are the principles of Burning Man. “Burners pay, and volunteer, so we can pay ourselves” is the over-arching principle of BMOrg.
Picture for a moment being in Europe and pulling into a quaint mountain village called Schwarzefelsenstadt, which has particularly photogenic people and attractions. But there’s a gate, and a guard tells you that before you enter you have to sign a waiver in which you agree to:
1) Surrender all rights to your photos and video to the town.
2) Only show your photos to friends and family (no blogs, no Twitter, no Facebook beyond friends and family).
3) If you intend to show the pictures to anyone beyond friends and family — “any situation where the photos will be shown in public” — you have to register first for a license and get written approval from the bureaucrats of Schwarzefelsenstadt for each of the pictures you want to show people BEFORE you show them, not just now, but for eternity.
4) Never take a candid photo or video shot because you always have to ask permission first of each person in the photo, and get signed model release forms.
5) Not take pictures of any of the fabulous works of art or stunning architecture unless you first get written permission from the artist.
6) Immediately register with city bureaucrats ANY camera that can perform even the briefest of video functions which, in essence, is EVERY point-and-shoot and (wait for it) smart phone on the market.
While I’m not aware of any real city outside of North Korea that has these rules, this is exactly what participants agree to when they go to Burning Man at Black Rock City this week. This isn’t opinion; all of these rules are clearly stated in some 2,000 words of fine print at the event’s corporate website.
So it seems if you’re a huge fan of freedom of expression (except for photography and videography), a carefree community, a celebration of creativity, astoundingly talented artists (except for photographers), a generally high level of nudity and, possibly, substances that might or might not cure glaucoma, then Burning Man is an epic, potentially life-changing event.
From a photographer’s standpoint, Black Rock City is about as close to a fascist regime you can find. And while I fully understand there are those photographers and videographers who tried to exploit and profit from the, er, um, free-wheeling dress code at Burning Man (thank you, “Girls Gone Wild”), this is about control.
The rationale of “protecting the people” has often been used to restrict and control information so that the public sees and hears only what officials want them to see and hear — although, frankly, that particular tool has nearly always been associated in history with swell folks such as Stalin, Pinochet and the Khmer Rouge. Interesting role models.
If having a corporation (Black Rock City LLC) tell you what you can and cannot do with pictures and video doesn’t bother you, go and have a great time. If you’re a photographer who loves to travel and share images of other places and other cultures, you’re better off almost anywhere else.