Burning Man Policies Ignite Copyright Conflagration

BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev.—As wildfires continue to rage out of control in the hills above the San Fernando Valley, aka Porn Valley, in Southern California, organizers of the Burning Man Festival, taking place now, started a brush fire of their own when they tightened their grip on the usage of photographs and videos shot during the seven-day event.

Now in its 23rd year, Burning Man has always been acutely aware of the manner in which corporate interests, as well as regular folk, have sought to use images of both the artwork created at the show and the people who go to enjoy a rare and uniquely uninhibited experience. The image of the iconic Burning Man himself, for instance, has been protected like the crown jewels.

This year, however, after images of naked festival-goers wound up on various porn sites, the organizers decided that more stringent rules were needed, and they instituted a policy whereby the festival now holds the copyright for images that attendees post on social networking sites or other pages operated by third parties.

The move is intended to give the festival an enhanced ability to force websites to remove images they don't approve of, and to protect the privacy rights of those who attend the event and may not want their image posted willy-nilly to websites, especially porn sites.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “The policy says those who post photos from the event on a website controlled by a third party must agree to give organizers the copyright ‘so that Burning Man can enforce against the third party any restrictions concerning use of the images.’ " The policy is based on provisions found in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

"Our main concern in enacting the policy was to be able to create this weeklong cultural bubble where people can express themselves without worrying about their image being plastered all over the Internet," said Andie Grace, a spokesperson for the festival.

Unfortunately, not everyone regards the new policy as consistent with the open source philosophy the festival also attempts to engender. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) posted a harsh critique earlier this month, accusing the festival of serious overreach.

“We do empathize with BMO’s desire to preserve the festival’s noncommercial character and to protect the privacy interests of ticket-holders. But by granting itself ownership of your creative works and forbidding fair uses of its trademarks, BMO is using the ‘fine print’ to give itself the power of fast and easy online censorship.”

Organizers shot back, claiming that EFF unfairly simplified a very complicated issue.

“Just like the EFF,” wrote Grace, “we honestly seek to think outside old paradigms and boxes of “creative property” in the digital age, but we view Black Rock City through a more complicated lens, and our view of issues facing creative ownership is not rendered in extremes of black and white. To us, the rights of the individual participant to privacy while in Black Rock City in this unique environment for free expression—and our philosophical desire to maintain it out of reach of those who would exploit that expression just to sell cars or soft drinks—happens to come first.”

The conversation also has spilled over to BoingoBoingo and Lord knows where else in cyberspace. Needless to say, right now innumerable people are shooting massive quantities of digital content, most of them perhaps unaware of the expanded rights they have assigned to the festival organizers, who already spend 12 months a year protecting the copyrights of a festival that has become a city.