Friday, August 14, 2009

Hippies Unite!

From Burning Man's terms of service, implicitly agreed to by all revelers, burners, hippies, technophiles, utopians, sex addicts, and weirdos who shell out the $250-300 for the privilege of attending Black Rock City, LLC's annual festival of lust, dust, expression, emotion, art, fire, and all of the other things you are not likely to see in a typical Catholic Church Easter Sunday celebration, unless you catch the Pope in a really good mood and looking to use up the rest of his fireworks budget:

UNDERSTAND AND ACCEPT THAT NO USE OF IMAGES, FILM, OR VIDEO OBTAINED AT THE EVENT MAY BE MADE WITHOUT PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM BURNING MAN, OTHER THAN PERSONAL USE. I understand that I have no rights to make any non-personal use of any image, film, or video footage obtained at the event, and that I cannot sell, transfer, or give the footage or completed film or video to any other party, except for personal use, and I agree to inform anyone to whom I give any footage, film, or video that it can only be used for personal use. [emphasis original]

But wait, there's more. Further down:

Holder's image may be captured on film, video or photographs without holder's consent and without compensation ... Holder hereby appoints Burning Man as his or her representative to protect his or her intellectual property or privacy rights, recognizing that Burning Man has no obligation to take any such action.

Take that, friends of free information.

What is Burning Man's justification for this? For one of two answers we can turn to that other agent of turning the desires of affluent artistic-hipster aesthete types into constant supplies of gold via surprisingly user-unfriendly methods, Apple. As I wrote last week, Apple recently killed the "life-changing" Google Voice program, solely on the grounds the Google Voice *might* at compete with a program that Apple *might* release sometime in the future. Black Rock City, LLC, is a for-profit entity, which pays its full-time employees a good living, allowing them to spend their year focusing on making the event the best it could be instead of scrounging for funds. BRC also showers plenty of money on a number of art installations and foundations. Given that BRC is clearly willing to do good by doing well, it makes sense -- and is right -- that the company should look to maximize its revenue stream, and that can come in the form of officially-licensed videos, books, and other as-though-your-were-there materials. I would wager that BM 2008 took in something in the neighborhood of eight to ten million dollars in ticket revenue, assuming 50,000 people (best estimate I can get), each shelling out (conservatively) $175-250 per person. This sounds like a lavish amount, but given various taxes and fees -- you don't think the Bureau of Land Management allows use of that land for free, do you -- plus expenses and salaries, that money can disappear faster than you think. Ask any small-business owner. If BM could charge $100 for as-though-you-were-there video sets and memorabilia, then it could spend that much more on making the festival better. It's not, after all, as though Disney World would be so marvelous if the Disney Company were reduced to looking for quarters in the street. And the what-the-market-will-bear price becomes that much lower of the official BRC-produced stuff has to compete with homemade videos.

Protecting that market value means, above all, protecting the brand. BRC has a vested interest in making sure that anything that reaches the public with the name "Burning Man" emblazoned on it fall in with BRC-approved themes and meets BRC-approved standards. If, in theory, anti-BM types started, to use an extreme example, circulating doctored photos of babies being slaughtered and eaten (or something equally offensive), photos carrying the Burning Man label, then the event would be forever tarnished in the eyes of many people who would otherwise attend, and the event might even find itself under strong political opposition. As the T & C state:

Use other than personal use of images from Burning Man, or of drawings or representations of the Burning Man sculpture on a book cover or in any advertisement, or of the phrase "Burning Man" in the title of any publication or in any advertisement, is prohibited without prior written consent of Burning Man

And the brand is not the only thing BRC needs to protect. Privacy is another. As a general rule, if I make a video of an event, then before I can distribute it I need the permission of everyone in it -- especially is this video is being sold, whether for profit or charity. BRC has such permission already as a condition of participants' buying tickets (see above). But while many professional photographers are conscientious enough to get their subjects' OK, a number of amateurs would not, and in the process leak into the outside world pictures of people doing what they'd rather their bosses, friends, family, and neighbors (and in some cases the law) not see, and the pictures would leak out without their even knowing it. Were that two happen, BRC would almost certainly be the target of the lawsuit, to say nothing of the problems to which the unwitting photo subjects would be subjected for a long time to come.

In short, Burning Man is a business, run by a for-profit company, and the hosting organization has the right to tell its customers what they can and cannot do within the bounds of the event for which the organization will be held responsible.

1 comment:

  1. Ok this is brilliant... but I might add that the for profit company is telling its customers what they can and cannot do outside of the bounds of the event as well with regard to their own personal memories of the event. Disney does not tell its patrons that all photographs are the property of Disney.

    And the purchase of "like you were there" merchandise would extend outside of those who were not there. I have looked at so many photographs taken by other people of things that I both saw and did not see, things I photographed and did not photograph and even though I attend the event, I appreciate the visual perspectives of others.

    In closing, I'm not sure how BM would enforce a crackdown of this sort or if they have. It's kind of hard to enforce stuff like this and at the same time not hard at all. Don't believe me? Try getting a camera into a Bob Dylan concert sometime. (An aside, I did it but it was not entirely comfortable.)