Decommodification: A Teachable Moment for People Who Make Playa-Ready Stuff

By Burgundy Morgan

I found this awesome warm black fuzzy coat at Salvation Army and re-purposed it for the playa. I like to support local artists and “keep money in the family,” so I hired my wonderful neighbor who runs a small seamstress business.

I gave her my playa coat design along with this kick-ass iridescent pink and black striped fabric I found. I hired her to sew in the fabric as the new lining, put in deeeeeep pockets with snapping closures, and add other snazzy features. My functional festival coat let me freely hop, skip, bike, romp and noodle-leg all over the playa without carrying a backpack or having my playa party favors fall out of my pockets. I have to admit, I’m pretty proud of my funky “FUN-ktional Own Creation!”

I was grateful to my seamstress neighbor, and after the 2016 Burn, I sent her a note of thanks along with this photo:

She loved it! In fact, she loved it so much she asked, “Would you mind if I used that photo of you wearing the coat on my seamstress website? It’s a great photo… and that beautiful lighthouse structure behind you is amazing!”

I told her that using images of an artist’s work requires their permission, but that Burning Man art can’t be used commercially anyway. I was happy to let her use a photo of me wearing the coat on her site, but images of Burning Man can’t be used to sell products.

She replied, “But I’m not selling the coat. I just want to use that photo on my seamstress website to demonstrate my work. … And that lighthouse behind you is just so beautiful!”

I realized she was genuinely puzzled by the issue. I also realized I had an opportunity for a “teachable moment” on the Burning Man ethos, including Decommodification and Media Rights and Responsibilities (not to mention copyright law, trademark law and persona rights).

I asked her, “As an artist yourself, would you be okay with your art being used without your knowledge or permission to sell cars, or auto insurance, or other things?” From that perspective, she got the point. The difference is, she runs a small business, and sometimes she would want to give permission to someone who wanted to use her work in a promotion. Burning Man culture, however, is decommodified — its imagery shouldn’t be used commercially at all.

The really good news is that I was able to offer an alternative solution that would meet her needs another way:

I told her, “I’m going to be at another event in a few weeks, and I’ll be wearing the festival coat along with the rest of the outfit. I will take more photos in a neutral location, you can pick your favorites, and post those photos of me on your website.”

This is the photo I sent to her, shot in a neutral location outside a warehouse.

This solution was a win-win that worked for everyone.

Most people will do the right thing if they know the right thing to do. However, like my seamstress neighbor, people may not know what the right solutions are, or they may not have fully explored Burning Man’s principles and policies in the first place. Let’s talk about how to do it right.

How to Share the Culture Without Screwing It Up

Burning Man’s principles and policies are in place to create a container for radical human experimentation in community, creativity, freedom, self-expression, and gifting. The container of Burning Man is sort of like a petri dish for humans, where people can co-create together and experience each other in an environment radically different from the default world.

To foster this experience, as a condition of attending Burning Man (which is a private event) participants agree not to use photos shot at Burning Man for financial gain or commerce. In addition to the Burning Man ethos and principles, there are also “really real” Federal copyright laws that prohibit photos depicting another’s art and “really real” state laws prohibiting the use of photos of people for financial gain or in connection with commerce. And please don’t use “Burning Man” to sell your stuff, because there are “really real” Federal trademark laws, too.

By way of example, just imagine this shit show…

A participant prints up a bunch of “Burning Man” tee shirts with an image of the Man on the front. He asks a passerby to take a photo of him wearing it while standing in front of playa art next to several unsuspecting naked and happy Burners (who may be homemakers, teachers, doctors, office workers, or whatever back home). He then posts that photo on his website to sell the shirts. Please don’t be that guy. You do not want to deal with the pain and expense that will follow from the fallout.

So what CAN you do? A lot of things! To that end, here is a brief guide:

  1. Ask permission first: This means, (i) contact the artist before using images of their art for anything (let alone for commerce), (ii) get permission from any person readily recognizable in the photo (…and always ask first if you may take a photo of someone in the first place, even if the photo is just for personal use), and (iii) no commercial photography is allowed at Burning Man, and you should contact the Burning Man Press Team if you have any questions about “commercial use” or “broad public distribution.” Also, while much art is cathartically burned at Burning Man, a lot of art is not, and some of it is on display at other locations, so ask the artist about alternative venues.
  2. Find proper alternatives: The term for “permission” is often referred to as a “license to use.” If you did not get a “license to use,” there are alternative ways to meet your needs. These easy solutions include:
    1. Shooting photos in a neutral location. (This really works. After all, my seamstress neighbor loved the second “neutral location” photo as it demonstrated more of her work than the first.)
    2. Describe your items using an alternative word such as “festival” (as in “festival clothing for sale” or “festival goggles”) instead of “Burning Man.” (editor’s note: Burning Man is not a festival.) After all, your customers know what you are talking about, and you are actively helping to protect the Burning Man mark from commodification by companies who would otherwise try to use “Burning Man” to sell cars or insurance or something.

Respecting the artists’ work on the playa is good, loving and right. Helping to protect the Burning Man mark from being diluted by commercial exploitation will go a long way toward supporting this extraordinary ongoing experiment in Decommodification and other Burning Man principles. So thank you to all you heart-centered good people out there for your willingness to step up and do the right thing!

6 Comments on “Decommodification: A Teachable Moment for People Who Make Playa-Ready Stuff

  • HoneyBee says:

    What an excellent reminder of the ethos that helps our culture alive. Love the coat, too!

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  • Geomom says:

    I asked for permission to use a map of BLC (very easy to download from Google of course) in a slide presentation at a workshop on city design. BMORG’s response was prompt and specific: yes to the presentation, no to publication. I’m OK with that. One of the charms of Burning Man is active participation, so the workshop environment fits that sensibility. I would love to see more people get out of their Internet caves and return to live events. The other argument – fighting the irresistible urge to commodify – is an uphill but worthy battle. Successful branding first thrills, but then kills the heart of a business. It leads to buyout and degradation. May we always be radical enough to jump sideways and backwards when it makes sense to do so. Wouldn’t it be something to change the name? Completely ditch “Burning Man” and reinvent ourselves?

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  • Terbo Ted says:

    I think I am going to simply not take any pictures ‘Out There’ ever again, far easier than offending people or The Man. I only took a few last year and didn’t put any of them online anywhere, zero social media posts of any kind from out there. It’s not like there aren’t professional photographers out there doing beautiful work.

    I keep coming up with new rules for being out there. One of my new rules for this year is to not go on, in or up any structure intended to be burned. Bringing that up because I cut my arm while I was up in The Lighthouse last year, and it was so crowded up there, I didn’t feel safe at all, especially if it had collapsed or caught fire, no way to get safely in or out once inside with the crowds. As it was, I had to go to the medical clinic out there for that cut which got infected.

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  • Sarcastronaut says:

    As someone who is fiercely against commodification (and who has seen many flagrant attempts at profiting off the trademark of BM and the man symbol itself), I respectfully disagree with this post. The seamstress crafted the coat so she should be able to feature her work no matter where it is photographed (when given permission by the model). From her relayed comments in the post she clearly isn’t using it to sell mass produced Burner gear. Many craftspeople ask that people take photos of people using / wearing their creations and it’s common courtesy to do so to help support mom and pop artists. The Lighthouse is public art in the background. In my honest opinion, of all the attempted profiting and brand co-opting going on, this particular photo argument doesn’t hold water. It’s all about purpose and intention and I don’t feel that either of those crossed the line in this situation.

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  • poetschmoet (aka petal) says:

    Thank you for your contribution, Burgundy… Ethics, when used to guide as opposed to battering, are important to communities. Your post triggered the insight how i wish in the (default) world, especially U.S. culture and politics, when the govt intends to protect and empower people, we would call those structures ‘ethos’ instead of ‘regulation.’

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