A Fable

Three old white guys own the trademarks. They all hate each other’s guts.

For nine years these symbols of power, these keys to wealth and celebrity have been dormant in a magic box equally controlled by each of the three. A while back the “man in the hat” (Larry) for reasons that could be guessed by the other two, decided that he alone should control the magic talismans that were the symbols and the property of the People and had been held in an uneasy trust for so long. He made a bold move to smash the magic box and solely possess the grails with-in. This man enticed his lieutenants into supporting his bold move for sole power with flattery, threats and manipulation. These skills he learned very well from an ancient Italian Prince. If the “man in the hat” succeeded, the other man, the thin “Ranger” (M2) knew he would be cast out onto the edge of the desert, alone and unrewarded for his life’s allegiance to and paradoxically, his sly manipulation of the Kingdom and it’s people. The third old white guy, a naked, mud covered lunatic who had run off to another land was dragged back to the Kingdom. He is wielding a lightning bolt. (note: for legal purposes this is a METAPHOR!! not a literal threat –DUH! Anyone who was in the Black Rock with me a million years ago will get the joke.)

If the Kingdom is true, it will easily survive and thrive despite anything any of these silly men do.

Is Burning Man a Brand or a Movement? Time to decide, kiddies.

I was dragged into this situation by Michael Mikel’s demand for arbitration a while back. That was M2’s legal response to Larry’s refusal to pay the nominal licensing fee to continue to maintain these valuable brands in an entity that had successfully kept them from being exploited for nine years. I had no choice in the matter since I was legally bound to the other two. I decided to fight to keep anyone from having an exclusive right to capitalize on these brands and the IDEA of Burning Man at some future date. Some people might think that both these guys have the best of intentions. I for one have absolutely no reason to believe that.

Larry’s initial maneuverings and M2’s subsequent demand for Arbitration were specific attempts by each to wrest sole control of the trademarks from the other partners. Just read the documents.

Sure if it’s all Public Domain, I.G Farbin or Anaconda Copper could use BM imagery/concepts to sell their stuff – they wouldn’t, but they could. If it’s a real social movement with “legs” and a destiny greater than being simply an awesome tailgate party then those who really are part of it and support it will never mistake the event, and their involvement in it, with “Burning Man condoms” or “Burning Man antacid tablets.” Anyway any “burners” –{yikes!!} or any just plain old regular people that simply enjoy the event will not be forbidden from “being” Burning Man.

Tamera sent me this last night:

Well, considering I (an unemployed SF artist) had eBay auctions (my only source of income) taken down because I said some vintage clothes would be “great costumes for Burning Man” and was then read the riot act and threatened by eBay because Burning Man was a trademarked name, the likelihood of these capitalist assholes relinquishing that is about, um, none.

But yeah! Good luck. I recently left SF after seeing the city change in ways I really could not stand. What Burning Man is now symbolizes a lot of that for me.

None of this would be happening if Larry and M2 weren’t so intent on total control over the trademarks. If Larry, M2 and BRC LLC are concerned about Coke or MTV using the brands, then diluting their money value by placing them into the Public Domain will decrease the likelihood of corporate behemoths wanting or needing the BM image. Smaller appropriations of these concepts (Burning Chicks with Guns) can be laughed off by people who believe in the event and who support what they think it brings to the world.

Burning Man “as a concept” has been out there so long anyway that it is part of the culture. Much like the song “Happy Birthday” which is owned by some corporation that continues to license it, BM is both a cliché to many and a belief system to others.

As I’ve stated before, the only reason to keep ownership of these brands is to capitalize on them, now or at some future date. Larry and M2 are profiting and intending to continue profiting from the trademarks. This fact refutes the argument that some have made about protecting these marks from the commercial use of others by retaining control of them. By vying for sole control of the marks, Larry & Michael are preparing to do just that (capitalize on them.) I don’t trust them.

My involvement in the underground art and pranks scene in San Francisco goes back thirty years, pre-dates Burning Man and has been financed out of my (typically) very thin pockets. Everything I had went into the event and this fact is one of the two or three primary reasons that the event exists. Anyone not involved in the early beginnings of the desert festival certainly can have an opinion about my claims. If they base their opinion on the facts and they are fair, they’ll realize and agree with my argument for Public Domain. The only alternative is to acknowledge and maintain the three partners’ rights to share ownership and control of the marks and share in a fair market value for their use. If that happens, my guess is we three will remain pretty deadlocked. Anyone who was THERE knows damn well what I’m saying is true whether they would admit it now or not. If there is any confusion about my interest in only money – had I really only wanted money- a backroom deal would have been done complete with cigars and backslapping and you would not be reading this now.

Nuff said for now.


  1. Pingback: Laughing Squid » John Law Sues His Former Burning Man Partners
  2. Dr. Mercury

    I see the following quotation bandied around on several of these discussions:

    “Well, considering I (an unemployed SF artist) had eBay auctions (my only source of income) taken down because I said some vintage clothes would be “great costumes for Burning Man” and was then read the riot act and threatened by eBay because Burning Man was a trademarked name, the likelihood of these capitalist assholes relinquishing that is about, um, none.”

    Very disappointing if true, but also possibly a total lie. Before we treat this as a fact relevant to the discussion… where’s the proof? I understood that BMORG comes down on people using the title Burning Man in the names of products that they were selling, but that saying “great costumes for Burning Man” should be fine. Could this person have been trying to sell “Burning Man Clothing” with “great costumes for Burning Man” in the description, rendering her email only a half-truth? I would be curious to know the whole story.

  3. StevePi

    Just curious – wasn’t it eBay that pulled the ads due to the trademark? So – perhaps the ire is best directed at them? Would eBay do the same for any other trademark? eBay being overzealous in enforcing trademark issues on their site (which is a real issue for them) shouldn’t be construed as something Burning Man has done. I would say that that particular example is difficult, as you can’t say for sure if BM was involved in this particular instance or not.

    There are probably better examples than this one – you should use those instead.

  4. jennconspiracy

    …I tend to agree with StevePi on that example. You might consider cases where BMORG has directly pursued and threatened prosecution.

    Good luck to you in this case!

  5. b0b

    Well, look at the bald faced lies they put on the “after burn” report about the Stop Burning Man crew. Maid Marion has publically made totally false claims about them. Some eplaya zealots went to great lengths to try to get the domain name yanked as well, and others were even threatening legal action because the words ‘burning man’ were in the URL.

    I think John Law is right. Burning Man should belong to everyone – all of us – and not just Larry Harvey and M2. For them to keep it so they can exploit it for their own profits is hypocritical and is insulting.

  6. Terence M

    What a mess!

    How about we remove all names and logos from the event. No name to steal, profit from, argue over, get tattooed with, etc.

    After all the talk about gifting and the bashing of the default world economy this seems like a petty thing for our “leaders” to get caught up in.

  7. Churchill

    I have only been to Burning Man once. It is totally non-commercial. However, I feel that the spirit of the event should govern the trademark. I don’t think letting the TM get into the public domain is a good idea. But controlling the TM will help keep it out of a pepsi commercial. BM was build by thousands of volunteers, and is specifically a public owned event. You can’t own the 4th of July. Larry and M2 are just getting old and wanting some money. They can make their money from commercializing the brand and selling TASTEFUL items. I would like a nice BM t-shirt, handmade, and not made with slave wage laborers. That is tasteful. And I would pay fifty bucks more for a ticket if they would have running water and hot showers. I think that wouldn’t commercialize the event too much, but make it much more convenient and widen out the popularity.

    The real question is who owns the event! The Indy Race League started a league from owning the Indy 500, but they started losing money because they lost community support. Think about it.
    Peace be with you. Churchill

  8. rex scates

    John law remember me? Jason Racquerbys friend and cohort from the 1989-1993? The gothic nouvoa ball event organizers and other events. Hello glad to see your sticking to your guns and not being a silent person. I was amazed that you have been silent all these years and am glad to see that you are coming back out of the woodwork I was out there with you in 1990 and remember your idea for the “man” and what occurs now is not it. I wish you the best of luck and take care and never give up!!!!

  9. Sodium

    Yup. That’s why I’m in total agreement.
    Good luck. Make it work. You’re the only one who can dislodge the hijackers.

  10. David Kaye

    Split the fees equitably among the three, or dispense with the trademarks altogether. Makes perfect sense to me.

    There is something to be said in favor of a 3-way partnership made up of enemies. It is less likely that such partners would ever do anything to benefit the one more than the others. The corollary is the kids who want to split a pie. Mom tells one kid to cut the pie any way they see fit, but that the other kid will be able to choose the bigges slice.

    Likewise, as long as three partners hate each other we can probably be assured that there won’t be any “Burning Man Girls Gone Wild” videos out there any time soon.

  11. DangerAngel

    I have a great photo of you 3 and I think you are indeed wearing a lightning bolt on your hat.

    I’ll dig it up – maybe I can sell it on ebay!

  12. Caeru

    Well darn it all this is a true quandry all right. If those holding the Burning Man logos and trademarks are doing so to prevent commercial use of them by outside entities then it makes not much difference whether there is one or a hundred people on the legal papers does it? None of them will be making any profit from them aside from whatever salary/wages they would receive as employees of the LLC. The collecting of funds from the sales of tickets to the Burning Man event and the handful of items in the online Burning Man Marketplace are the main sources of income for the BM Org but they also, as holders of the logos and trademarks, can control who else is licensed (and assessed a fee of some amount?) to make a profit from images, videos and the like depicting the event. As long as these monies are properly handled and channeled back into the LLC and not lining someone’s pockets (which seems to be the unstated allegation in many peoples comments about this situation) then the LLC should continue as it is, employing whoever it sees fit to manage its affairs.
    It is pretty obvious that the founders of the Burning Man event have come to have very different opinions of its present state and widely divergent visions for its future…however in the end it will be the participants themselves who will decide whether the event is something worth attending…and the LLC will decide whether the participants they are attracting are the ones that make it worthwhile to continue the event in its current direction, yes? I for one am very glad the founders kept things going to get us where we are now out on the playa and hope that the core principles governing the Burning Man event can be maintained.

  13. yourfriend

    John you are a brave warrior for the soul of SF’s freak art community, thank you for writing this up. signed, your friend

  14. Kevin Evans

    I’m glad to finally see some of the “real” history leaking out after all these years.

    Again, behind you all the way. let me know if you need any assistance or donations.


  15. amybean

    Hahahahahaha. Maybe if I could sell some hand made Burning Man Snow Globes (hey Charlie!!) or Burning Man Canned Beans, I’d be able to afford to go to Burning Man, the Actual Event, and bring my hyper creative energies to give away as gifts. But sadly, no, I have to sell something else to fund my gifts to this festival, even though I bought a ticket which gives me permission to continue funding the Actual Event which is the Yearly Creation of the Event. It seems entirely stupid that the ticket price does not include use of the intellectual property….given the nature of the event and, you know, the gifting part. Tiresome! And Greedy!

    Give those hippies Hell, John!

  16. Rob

    A 7 year participant, I drank the Kool-AIDTM then realized that many involved were acting very destructively, the exact opposite of their “BurningManTM values”. Personally very painful. Nonetheless BMTM and cacophony have had a positive impact on me.

    Open source branding is the frontier, very experimental today. So if the three partners cannot share the ring of power and it’s attendant cash flow, your proposal is a good one, very cacophonyTM in spirit!

    The best with your creative efforts and charting a sustainable life.

    BTW – the BurningManTM financial statements are a joke. There is no information on income, only expenses, no breakdown of the salaries to the officers. None of the standard income statement, balance sheet and statement of cash flow. Perhaps the suit could discover them into the public domain… for the last few years.

  17. Barbara Saunders

    Burning Man “as a concept” … hmmm… a journey to a faraway place, music, drug-taking, ritualized arts, and a physical ordeal. Sounds like, well, the Eleusinian mysteries. And a gazillion other things that have existed in history!

  18. DoggieHead

    Ok…I’m another oldtimer (my first burn was in ’95 – some would argue that I’m not even an old timer).

    I was there when you could bring guns (The progression went from “guns are great”, to “no exposed guns in camp (but ask a ranger for directions to a suitible spot for target shooting)”, to “The Black Rock Desert is not an appropriate place for firearms”). I was there when you could drive around the playa and could light tiki torches in your camp (until someone fairly highly placed in the project decided that it would be a good idea to prop up his tiki torch with a hay bale next to his tent and left it lit and unattended and then came the wind storm). I was there when a naked chick could ask a sheriff’s deputy for a light of her joint – and get one. I was there when the buzzword wasn’t community, it was freedom.

    I did my share, working the gate during sandstorms, stuffing envelopes with info, etc. I remember when cash needed to be rushed from the gate to camp to pay various people off so that portapotties would be emptied and electricity would be restored to central camp.

    A lot of changes have happened since then – many of them necessary due to the increase in size, and not the fault of the organizers. But there were other changes that occured. Volunteers came and went. People poured their hearts and souls and money into the project and never got any sort of thank you or sense of appreciation. Quite frankly a lot of people got screwed -used up by the project and kicked to the curb when they could be replaced by someone less jaded about the lack of payoff or even thanks.

    All of you folks that see how many of the veterns from 10-15 years ago are supporting John should see that as a sign that the man in the hat (and his henchmen and hench women) have generated a huge, huge amount of ill will in the community.

    That’s quite seperate from the merits of John’s case . . .but it is one of the reasons why I am behind him 100% as well.

    Some other things to keep in mind: John’s part in those early playa burns was much greater than anything he has mentioned here, and it is amazing that John has resisted the urge to take action before now, but John is an extremely honorable man and was letting things slide until Larry’s power grab.

    Now as to the merits of the case: I have not discussed it with John, but I suspect that the best possible outcome in his eyes is a return to the original agreement where the three old white men control the name and John pretty much gets nothing for his incredible investment. However, the man in the hat decided to make a power play and wrest control for himself (presumably if he got away with it, he would start to really profit from it – I have heard enough of his hollow rhetoric to know better than to trust his intentions).

    Now that Larry has forced the issue by his power grab, it appears that John is quite reasonably further forcing the issue to where “all power and cash goes to Larry” is not one of the possible outcomes.

  19. CTD

    I’m quite happy with “Burning Man” as a brand, to be bestowed only on the Black Rock and Approved Other events. The “movement” you refer to is something greater than and separate from two tiny words.

  20. Erik Chipchase

    Hello John;

    I was wondering when you would finally make a stand against these uninteresting people.

    Good luck, and confusion to yer enemies!

    sic semper tyrannis.

    Your Friend.


  21. planetruth

    I guess this is what happens when anyone takes an ancient ritual and calls it their own. Lotta karma here. And the question remains unanswered – did Larry burn himself or the other guy? The truth is always revealed.

  22. Veektoastia

    Jest wondering:

    Going in, did anyone have shiny bright ideals or astral expectations that are now shattered? (loyalty, friendship, trust, communal creationism?) Or did Reality long ago careen noisily onto a rogue siding, leaving at the old depot any original dreams the earliest participants may have had for the event, like so many flattened pennies flipping sunward in its wake?

    If it were just about community, or about creativity, (and not also about lots of money) would anyone care who owned the mark?

    Is living well indeed the best revenge? (I hope no one involved ever regrets the time they are about to expend on this issue.)

    (Lahontan launderess since 1993)

  23. chrislove

    This is an appropriate battle at an appropriate time. If Burning Man is all that it is supposed to be, then as an entity, it must be challenged. Challenges bring about change, which brings about evolution. Scatter the ownership to the wind! Then see where the cards fall. Otherwise, I agree with a prior post: 3 brains are better than one.

  24. ddp

    1996 was my first burn and 2006 was my eleventh. I’m pretty much in agreement with what DoggieHead wrote above. I’ve watched the event mutate over the years and I’ve come to view Larry as a tragic impediment to its spirit and soul. The allegations brought forth in both of these court filings seem to paint a clear target on the man in the hat. It’s obvious given the attendance and ticket prices that large quantities of money are at play and to simply take Larry at his word on the accounting has always struck me as unreasonably trusting. Let the chips fall where they may!

  25. Bro John

    I’ve seen a few mentions about eBay in your posts, including the anecdote about Tamara and her costumes. I work for BMOrg as the intellectual property “good cop” and I’m in a good position to tell you what really happened. I wrote her and asked that she stop using “Burning Man” in the title of her auctions. I said, “This isn’t a Burning Man skirt. It’s a skirt. Burning Man didn’t make it. You did. If you want to put ‘perfect for Burning Man’ in the description, please do so. But don’t use it in the title.” Why? Because eBay’s search engine automatically displays those items with the search term in the title. If you search on “Burning Man” and get tickets, or a book or photos or film which is about the event, great! But why should you have to sort through a bunch of glow sticks, costumes, camping equipment, etc? Sellers of those items are using the name to market, which we’re really hoping to avoid. But as an earlier post mentioned, it’s also against eBay’s rules and eBay enforces those rules. Tamara wrote back and basically told us to stick it because she wanted to market her clothes with the Burning Man name. She accused us of going corporate, even though she was the one who wanted to use someone else’s name to increase her sales. Nice gal, Tamara. And by the way, John: didn’t you ask BLCLLC to protect the trademark they’re licensing? I’m kind of confused why the enforcement makes you unhappy?

  26. John Hell


    I believe myself to be an oddtimer. Not an oldtimer. First burn was in 94. I recall those days well. I recall the meeting at Somarts in 96. I recall Flash jumping you. I also recall a love for the freedom that the event represents. Having the name in the public domain is inevitable, in my opinion. In the end, what is there to protect?

    You make the case, when you say that any true “burners” know what the event is really all about. They wouldn’t accept any false substitutes. Let someone highjack the name and sell underware with it. I think it would be a great experiment in our culture to make the name public and then see where it goes. It’s like raising a child and sending them off into the world. If you raised them right, they’ll take risks, but the rewards will be great. What could Larry and Michael really be afraid of?

  27. Webdaddy

    It’s not completely bad that someone “own” Burning Man. If the trademark is not protected, it becomes common usage.

    Burning Man being public domain sounds great in theory, but if anyone can use the title Burning Man that also means nothing can stop Burning Man Girls Gone Wild hitting your local video store. Videos exploiting our community have already been stopped because of trademarks/copyrights in the past. Imagine nudity being taken out of context. Imagine you lose your job because your employer sees the video. Imagine what happens to the event if people feel less free to radically express themselves.

    There is also more ability to control the message. To a lot of outsiders Burning Man is still a big party where people get naked and do drugs. The message of community, gift economy, etc. will be diluted if insiders aren’t the ones controlling the message.


  28. Segue

    Gee, I’m usually pretty opinionated about all things BurningMan but this is one helluva dilemma. I haven’t missed a year since ’96. I’m aware of much that has transpired, sometimes on the inside but more often from the outside. I believe that J.L. was shafted–the details of why or how i don’t know. However, we need to remember WHY the LLC was created, and WHETHER these original goals will be comprimised if J.L. gets what he wants, legit bitterness and all.

    “Burning Man” is still hot property. Hard to see from within the insular San Francisco scene. What to do? Let it go and change the name? Speaking from experience, naming is really really difficult. And more important than a lot of people realize.

    YES on the above comment from Rob. Let’s SEE the REAL accounting numbers. They hide too much and THAT makes me suspicious. HAVE Larry and M2 (and the rest) been actually profiting the past few years from this arrangement, or are they just granting themselves a living wage? If they aren’t profiting, then why hide? What’s to be ashamed of if $200,000 goes to ammo, steak, whisky and rent on the heavy hydraulic machinery for the cleanup crew? The truth is far more amusing than the omissions. I’d feel a lot more comfortable paying my $250 knowing that they piddled the money away in drunken revelry rather than each bought themselves new condos and RVs.

    Oh, yeah, speaking of the $250. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot less money and effort for everybody involved if EVERYBODY had to buy a ticket (even the organizers)? Tickets would cost 1/2 as much and we would ALL be participants again, on the level, no special privileges, but also no need for begging. Just think, no botched lists, and the organizers can get some rest at night again rather than being harrassed by 10,000 “artists” all screaming for freebies. It’s embarrassing. Can’t you all go somewhere ELSE for your Welfare Checks? No, getting free entry doesn’t make you any more special. Sorry. It just means that you are better (and louder) at begging and cajoling than somebody else. I know a lot of overqualified individuals who paid for their tickets AND made great contributions on the playa. I’ve got a lot of friends who would like to come, but can’t afford it anymore; people who are still living outside the consumer society and not working for money.

    BM is starting to stink like Country Fair, like a country club for old punk-rockers (rather than old hippies). It’s not too late to turn it around. Stop yer grousing and get on with it!

  29. Pingback: The Burning Man trademark controversy at FactoryCity
  30. Helena

    It’s history repeating I newer seen something not become part of the
    real world we live in even if the Idea is that it should be excluded and outside
    the boundaries we all are part of .

    I do not believe in a god either.

    Ironically this years green man theme is just that are we slaves to ourselves or nature.
    Man kind has traded I belive as long as we have existed.
    Money does not makes the trade worse or better.

    The only non profit organization event or happening would have to be organized
    by individuals that do not eat or get old in order to be a true non profit.

    Everybody is always looking to have fun with out paying for it and there
    is the contradiction.
    In this world there is always a cost.

    I have to say that I think one can enjoy it for what it is a reason to
    go out and do your thing.

    I think giving the trademarks back could actually prove to be the most effective
    PR campaign EVER !

    Imagine the snowball effect on people getting the word out since there is actual profit in it for themselves.
    I be the first to put up a banner on my Office and sell little twig men or matchstick men for $50.

  31. Helena

    Also to the Nudist issue you can not sell pictures of anyone with out having a
    written consent from the people in the video
    so trademark or not does not protect their naked asses

  32. Marky Sarky

    Let me say straight off that I’ve never been to Burning Man. I’m very far away from the US, for a start. However, through the magic that is the net, I’ve been able to keep track of how the event has developed and grown since the mid-90s.
    One of the biggest changes I have noticed (and again, I must reiterate that this is from afar, please keep that in mind when considering what I have to say) is that the spirit of the event – the ethos/headspace/vision – seems to have drifted from focus. Some of this I put down to the corruption of pure ideals within the expanding dynamic, by which I mean that as the event grows and attracts a greater number of participants who are, for want of a better word, square, so the simple principles become increasingly complex over time. It’s a numbers game, and if there is one startlingly obvious pattern I have noticed over the years, it is the rapid explosion in the popularity of Burning Man.
    As the numbers rise, so the challenges grow. Operating a freakfest within the confines of the laws and norms of established civil society is almost an impossibility. Sure, you can get away with it for a while, but inevitably the word gets out, or someone screws up, a picture leaks to wrong audience, and there is backlash. Accommodations are made to ensure the safety and viability of the event. Eventually, for an event which sought to define its own identity and culture and reject the culture of validation so craven elsewhere, bad publicity becomes a concern. The focus shifts.
    Equally, as the percieved value of trademarks and brands expand in sympathy with their popularity and marketability, so what was once a simple concept becomes ensnared by the legal and commercial facts of life.
    There’s an old saying by a legendary raver from Manchester which goes something like: ‘The spirit that gets the fook out before the cakes start ta luv it starts the one after’, a sentiment that, although described differently, is along much the same lines as many comments I have read about Burning Man: by the time something beautiful becomes known to the world, some of its beauty – perhaps the very essence of it – must move on, as by nature the beauty is best viewed intimately.
    Eventually, as Chinua Achebe put it so succinctly, the centre cannot hold. Things fall apart.
    But ah – what beauty is spawned, to go on to greater things.

    All the best;