April 9, 2010 | By corynne mcsherry

Tell Burning Man To Respect Your Digital Rights

It appears the Burning Man Organization (BMO), organizers of the annual Burning Man art and music festival, is reconsidering its "all your photos are belong to us" attitude toward images taken at the event. On April 7, the organizers called for community feedback on the Burning Man camera policy, including its approach to image rights. They're asking for comments via email (cameratales@burningman.com) by Friday, April 23, in advance of an April 28 meeting on the issue.

We’ve repeatedly criticized BMO for the onerous terms and conditions it imposes on Burning Man ticket sales. For example, the Burning Man ticket terms require participants to assign to the BMO—in advance—the copyright to any pictures they take on the playa; and limit participants' rights to use their own photos online by obliging them to take down any photos to which the organizers object for any reason and forbidding them from allowing anyone else to download or copy the photos (meaning, participants can’t CC-license their photos, or dedicate them to the public domain).

BMO claims that the ticket terms are necessary to protect Black Rock City’s unique culture and the privacy of its participants. Furthermore, BMO points out that the limitations are rarely enforced and they only claim copyright if the photos are used in a way BMO doesn't authorize. By asserting copyright in photographs taken at the event, BMO can use the streamlined "notice and takedown" process enshrined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to quickly remove unapproved photos from the Internet.

But using online ticket terms for fast and easy takedown and to restrict CC-licensing and dedication to the public domain is a terrible precedent to set. We understand the real challenges BMO faces in trying to preserve its noncommercial, community character. That said, a benevolent censor is still a censor, and if other event organizers follow suit, assignment and abrogation of rights could become standard Terms of (Ab)use in all ticket contracts.

We're glad that BMO is revisiting its image rights policy, and we hope the community will take full advantage of this opportunity to weigh in. So, Burners, if you care about your digital rights, tell the BMO that using take-it-or-leave-it fine print to assert veto rights over online expression is no way to promote a “society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers.”

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