Burning brand

A lawsuit by a Burning Man cofounder could expose the event and its icons to commercial exploitation
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steve@sfbg.com

Larry Harvey started Burning Man on Baker Beach in 1986, but it was John Law, Michael Mikel, and their Cacophony Society cohorts who in 1990 brought the countercultural gathering and its iconic central symbol out to Nevada's Black Rock Desert, where it grew into a beloved and unique event that last year was attended by 40,000 people.

Law hasn't wanted anything to do with Burning Man since he left the event in 1996 — until last week, when he filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court seeking money for his share of the Burning Man brand. Even more troubling to Harvey and a corporation that has aggressively protected the event from commercial exploitation, Law wants to move the trademarks into the public domain.

The suit has roiled and divided the Bay Area's large community of burners. Some support Law and the declaration on his blog that "Burning Man belongs to everyone," hoping to break the tight control that Harvey and Black Rock City LLC have exerted over their event and its icons, images, and various trademarks.

"If it's a real fucking movement, they can give up control of the name," Law told the Guardian in the first interview he has given about Burning Man in years. "If it's going to be a movement, great. Or if it's going to be a business, then it can be a business. But I own a part of that."

Yet those who control the business, as well as many attendees who support it, fear what will happen if anyone can use the Burning Man name. They envision MTV coverage, a burner clothing line from the Gap, Girls Gone Wild at Burning Man, billboards with Hummers driving past the Man, and other co-optations by corporations looking for a little countercultural cachet.

"We've been fighting attempts by corporations to exploit the Burning Man name since the beginning," BRC communications director Marian Goodell wrote on the Burning Man Web site in response to the lawsuit. "Making Burning Man freely available would go against everything all of us have worked for over the years. We will not let that happen."

Harvey, Law, and Mikel became known as the Temple of Three Guys as they led the transformation of the event from a strange camping trip of 80 people in 1990 to a temporary city of burners experimenting with new forms of art and commerce-free community. By 1996 it had grown to 8,000 people.

"Plaintiff is recognized as the one individual without whose leadership and ability the event would not have been planned or produced," the lawsuit alleges. "Plaintiff alone became recognized as the 'face' of the event to local residents and authorities, and was the event's facilitator, technical director and supervisor."

Law's central role in the event has also been spelled out in Brian Doherty's 2004 book, This Is Burning Man, and in Guardian interviews over the years with many of the original attendees. As Law told the Guardian, "I put everything I had into it."

Mikel, also known as Danger Ranger or M2, played a key role as the event's bookkeeper and the founder of the Black Rock Rangers, who oversee safety and security and serve as the liaison between attendees and outside authorities.

The lawsuit minimized Harvey's role in the 1990 event: "Harvey, however, did not participate at all other than to arrive at the event as a spectator after it was completely set up....