burning hypocrisy.
© 2002, 2003 Jamie Zawinski <jwz@jwz.org>


The hypocrisy of the Burning Man Organization pisses me off.

For those of you who don't know, Burning Man is this giant festival out in the middle of the desert where people build gigantic art installations, and then burn them at the end of the week. It's held on a dry lake bed, which is an incredibly hostile and unforgiving natural environment. The week before Labor Day, a city of 30,000+ crazy people springs up overnight, and then vanishes.

It's really pretty neat.

However, the corporation that owns and controls the event is incredibly hypocritical. So much so that I won't give them my money any more.

I went to the event for three consecutive years. In 2001, my friend rzr_grl registered as a "pro photographer". You see, the Burning Man Corporation allows "personal use" photography, but if you are a "professional" (whatever that means), or if you record video even for personal use, they insist that you register with them.

And so, she got to see a copy of the printed Burning Man Media Kit, which, taken in conjunction with the contract they make photographers sign, was possibly the most hypocritical pairing I've seen. The Burning Man organization presents itself as this spontaneous community effort, with everybody sharing and nobody in charge, and yet, their legal attitude is, "if you take a photo on the playa, we own it, and get to tell you when and where and how it can be published. Even if you take that photo of yourself, inside your tent, surrounded by your own stuff."

The best part: they also demand a whopping ten percent of any profit you make on your photos! Plus, they also demand that you send them a copy of all photos you take, and they claim the right to use them however they like, without paying you. They get complete editorial control over your work; the contract even says

because of course there is no nudity at Burning Man! That there is no sex and drugs goes without saying.

Now, restrictions like this are not, of themselves, necessarily bad things -- they all just a matter of contract. I have no problem with contracts entered into freely by both parties. When you buy the ticket, and you camp on the land they rented, you submit to their rules, and their rules consist of a Disney-like protection of their "brand". They try to protect the image of "Burning Man" in as structured and proprietary a way as Disney protects The Mouse: you would not be surprised if Disney demanded the same kind of submission the part of any press who took photos inside Disneyland.

But the thing that yanks my chain is that they do all this -- they give you a straight-up totally one sided work-for-hire contract that essentially says, "if you are a photographer, and you are at the Burning Man event, then you are our employee and we own all your work" -- and they try to soften the blow by accompanying it with a smarmy press kit that re-states the terms of the contract in this totally weaselly way: they go on at length about how they are viciously protecting their brand for your own good. And every other paragraph says stuff like "Larry Harvey -- dare we say it -- a Genius..."

It is to gag.

They're taking a totally standard, normal, corporate line toward their theme park -- but that idea embarrasses them (they don't like to think of it as a theme park.) So they cloak it in bullshit and hope that everyone will buy the lie that it's actually some spontaneous group-hug, and not a theme park.

Now, you might say that the motivations of the Burning Man Corporation are different than those of the Disney Corporation, and that makes their intentional obfuscation OK. But I say that, A) that doesn't make it ok, and B) I don't think the motivations are different in the first place.

Disney protects the mouse because the mouse's image is their whole business, and any change in how the mouse is viewed by the public could effect their ability to do their thing.

Burning Man is no different. Disney protects their brand because if someone else exploited their park in a way they didn't like, it would no longer be projecting the image that they want, and the park would no longer be profitable (or, "full of happy little kids" if you prefer to look at it that way.)

I don't have any problem with that.

What I have a problem with is the hypocrisy: Disney is at least honest about what they are doing and why. The Burning Man people went through such amazing verbal and mental gymnastics to avoid using the word "brand" in their press kit that it was comical.

Some will say that the difference between the two cases is that Disney's motivations are based on "market" concerns while the Burning Man Corporation's motivations are based on "aesthetic" concerns. But I think that's wrong, because there is no difference between "market" concerns and "aesthetic" concerns! There is no distinction between "aesthetic sense" and "branding". Disneyland and Burning Man have exactly the same goals in that respect: presenting a consistent face to customers. (Or "participants", or "cast members", or whatever buzzword the corporation in question chooses to use.)

Bullshit, Marian, it's about getting people to publish what you want about the event, and not publish their own views if you find those views distasteful:

I've enjoyed Burning Man every time I've gone, but after reading their press kit, I'll be damned if they're getting another dime from me. Which is why I have not gone since: I'd feel dirty giving them my money, and sneaking in sounds like just too much effort.

Now, please note that I am not complaining that Burning Man is "about money" and shouldn't be. I've got no problem with money.

I think it would be cool if there was an event that actually was what Burning Man professes to be.

I also think Disneyland is a lot of fun.

What pisses me off is the hypocrisy. If they just came out and admitted they were running the Raverland/Hippieland contingent of the Magic Kingdom, that would be fine with me. But they do two things: they run the event with a media strangle-hold that would make the White House proud; and then in the same breath they claim "we're doing it to protect you!"

If they were truly the enlightened anarchists they claim to be, they couldn't even consider such a thing: that kind of action is diametrically opposed to the views they pay lip service to.

If they practiced what they preach, they could never conscience the filing of a lawsuit like this one: if you only believe in freedom for people who share your aesthetic judgment, you don't believe in freedom at all.

I don't think their behavior is "unreasonable" or (should be) illegal. What pisses me off is their halfassed attempts to hide their behavior. I hate that they lie about it. They pretend "we're all in this together", but, in fact, some animals are more equal than others, aren't they?


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