A lawsuit by a Burning Man cofounder could expose the event and its icons to commercial exploitation
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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.... the 1990 event on the playa motivated Harvey to take a more active roll the next year, so he adopted the roll of artistic director thereafter." The three men entered into a legal partnership to run the event.
Harvey was always the one with the vision for growing the event into what it has become today a structured, inclusive gathering based on certain egalitarian and artistic principles while Law preferred smaller-scale anarchy and tweaks on the central icon.
"That was really the underlying conflict, but it got charged with emotion because 1996 was a harrowing year," Harvey told the Guardian, one of the few comments he would make on the record because of legal concerns.
That was the year in which Law's close friend Michael Fury was killed in a motorcycle accident on the playa as they were setting up for the event. And on the last night, attendees sleeping in a tent were accidentally run over by a car and seriously injured, prompting the creation of a civic infrastructure and restrictions on driving in future years.
Law had a falling-out with Harvey and no longer wanted anything to do with the event, while Mikel opted to remain; today he and Harvey serve on the BRC's seven-member board of directors. But Law didn't want to completely give up his stake in Burning Man, in case it was sold.
The three agreed to create Paper Man, a limited liability corporation whose only assets would be the Burning Man name and associated trademarks, which the entity would license for use by the BRC every year for a nominal fee, considering that all proceeds from the event get put right back into it.
Harvey has always seen that licensing as a mere formality, particularly since the terms of the agreement dealing with participant noninvolvement have caused Law's share to sink to 10 percent. In the meantime, however, tensions have risen in recent years between Harvey and Mikel, who has been given fewer tasks and even joined the board of the dissident Borg2 burner group two years ago (see "State of the Art," 12/1/04).
Harvey didn't pay Paper Man's corporate fees in 2003, but the corporation was reconstituted by Mikel, who was apparently concerned about losing his stake in Burning Man (Mikel could not be reached for comment). Harvey resisted formal written arrangements with Paper Man in subsequent years, but Mikel insisted.
Finally, on Aug. 6, 2006, Harvey drew up a 10-year licensing agreement and signed for Paper Man, while business manager Harley Dubois signed for the BRC. Mikel responded with a lawsuit that he filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Aug. 23, seeking to protect his interests in Paper Man. That suit later went into arbitration, which has been suspended by both sides since Law filed his suit. Law said he was prompted by the earlier lawsuit.
"I didn't start this particular battle," Law told the Guardian. "My options were to sign over all my rights to those guys and let them duke it out or do this."
Most burners have seen Harvey as a responsible steward of the Burning Man brand, with criticisms mainly aimed at the BRC's aggressiveness in defending it via threats of litigation. But Law still believes Harvey intends to cash in at some point: "I don't trust Larry at all. I don't trust his intentions."
Law is skeptical of Harvey's claims to altruism and even sees this year's Green Man theme which includes a commitment of additional resources to make the event more environmentally friendly as partly a marketing ploy.
"If they're going to get money for it, then I should get some to do my own public events," Law told us. "And if they don't want to do that, then it should be in the public domain."
Yet as Burning Man spokesperson Andie Grace wrote in response to online discussions of the conflict, "Our heartfelt belief in the core principles of Burning Man has always compelled us to work earnestly to protect it from commodification. That resolve will never change. We are confident that our culture, our gathering in the desert, and our movement will endure." *