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UPDATE: Burning Man Could Burn Video Company

15 Jul, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

The president of Voyeur Video plans to defend his company vigorously against copyright and trespass claims the owner-operators of the countercultural mecca Burning Man Festival for publishing footage – which includes nudity – of the closely guarded festivals since 1997.

Unlike similar cases in which women have sued the producers of the “Girls Gone Wild” videos for videotaping them baring their breasts on public streets at events like spring break in Fort Lauderdale or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Burning Man organizers hold their event in a remote desert locale, grant admission to ticketholders only and carefully control use of cameras on site, requiring a permit for each camera allowed in. In addition, the event is dedicated to noncommercial self-expression, and forsaking profit is a condition of admission.

“All tickets contain a contractual provision in which the ticket holder agrees that no commercial use will be made of any images obtained at the event without Burning Man's prior consent and that the ticket holder agrees to guidelines providing that attendees will not film, videotape or record any images of participants at the event without the recorded participants' permission,” the complaint states.

The organizers allege Voyeur Video recorded hours of footage and put out videos under the titles Burningman '97 Vol. 1-5, Burningman '98 Vol. 1-3 and, after festival reps served a court order, changed the title in subsequent years to Rainbow Fire Festival to dodge detection.

“We didn't edit the videotape. We just changed the title to Rainbow Fire Festival on the Web site,” said Jim O'Brien, president of Beverly Hills-based Voyeur Video. “I thought that would make them happy, but they're suing us five years later.”

O'Brien acknowledged contacting the organizers for permission to shoot video at the event and, although someone at the Burning Man festival office nixed the request verbally, he said, he never received a letter barring his photographers.

“One of the reasons I tried to get permission to shoot it for 2000 was that I wanted to use the name to sell the video,” he said.

O'Brien wouldn't say whether he contracted photographers to attend the events or simply bought footage from freelancers.

“I don't actually go to Burning Man and, as far as I'm concerned, Voyeur Video does not have a contract with Burning Man,” he said.

The lawsuit alleges Voyeur Video surreptitiously taped naked women, infringed on the festival's trademarks and violated its participants' privacy.

“They have flagrantly abused it for five years. We didn't see the 1997 video until 1999,” said Marian Goodell, part owner and communications director for the festival. “A participant was in a video store in Seattle and rented it. They called us and said, ‘Not only is it available, but we're in it.’

The festival organizers seek a court order barring further marketing or distribution of the tapes or footage of the festival's name and trademarks; and to claim the profits from the tapes and additional damages.

O'Brien has not hired a lawyer yet, but said he will fight the case.

“We are like the news. We just videotape what goes on there,” he said. “I believe that we will beat this. I think it's a First Amendment issue; they want to censor their party. It's an adult party, and we shouldn't have to leave that out of our tape.”

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