The Public Domain is a Dangerous Place…

Burning Man co-founder sues to put name, logo in public domain
By MARCUS WOHLSEN, Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

01-10 17:58 PST San Francisco AP —

Theres trouble in the desert.

A co-founder of Burning Man, the annual six-day festival of self-expression that culminates in the torching of a 40-foot effigy on the salt flats of northern Nevada, has sued his ex-partners to strip them of ownership of the events name and logo and place the rights to their trademarks in the public domain.

John Law, who helped transform a series of small bonfire parties on a San Francisco beach into a phenomenon that drew more than 39,000 last year, filed suit against Burning Man board members Larry Harvey and Michael Mikel in federal court Tuesday.

Harvey and Mikel have both recently tried to claim sole ownership over Burning Mans trademarks, violating an agreement the three signed after Law split with the organization in 1996, Law alleged in the suit.

“I decided to fight to keep anyone from having an exclusive right to capitalize on these brands,” Law wrote on his blog. “Burning Man belongs to everyone.”

… more in the article linked above …

I am Burner, but with only two burns under my belt I am the first to admit that I’m a novice on the scene. As a computer programmer though, intellectual property rights have been a concern of mine for decades.

I don’t know what sparked this dispute, but whatever ailment exists I fear that putting the Burning Man logo and name into the public domain would be a case of the cure being worse than the disease. In fact, the public domain violates the very principles under which Burning Man operates. Public domain is a legal copyright free-for-all with no rules whatsoever. Despite the self-responsibility and free-for-all atmosphere of Burning Man, it is not without rules. One of the core rules is no commercialism: no sales, no advertising real world products, no exploiting. The end result of putting the Burning Man name and logo into the Public Domain would eventually be commercialism of Burning Man to an extent that would desecrate the event and name forever.

But Law argued on his blog that Burning Man participants would see through any attempt to use its name for commercial purposes.

Yes, it is true that most of the participants would see through such attempts. And yet, if the Burning Man organizers and community were convinced of that thought they would not have the rule against commerce; they would trust that if they allowed Oscar Meyer to set up a hot dog stand that the participants would avoid it and it would prove unprofitable. That would be true trust in the Burning Man philosophy. But that isn’t going to happen, and putting the Burning Man intellectual property into the public domain shouldn’t happen either.

If the goal is to protect Burning Man, while giving the participants the right to use the name and logo in ways that support and adhere to the community standards, then there is another option. Create a Trust, and transfer the copyrights to the Trust. Grant a license for the free use of the name and logo, as long as that use falls within guidelines published by the trust. Commercial use would be subject to penalty fees that would be used to perpetuate the Trust as a Guardian of the copyrights. This would take the control of the Burning Man Intellectual Property out of the hands of individuals, while still protecting it from free-for-all commercial exploitation.

Also, once put in the public domain there is no way to retreat. The genie would be out of the bottle forever. Five years down the road the Trust could be dissolved if it isn’t working; it isn’t an irreversible choice.

Just a thought from a newbie burner.

Chris Knight

ps. unlike many of my posts, there will be no google ads at the bottom of this one. I’m not going to capitalize on the issue.

I use Amazon affiliate links in some of my posts. I think it is fair to say my writing is not influenced by the $0.40 I earned in 2022.