Burning Man gets hot over steamy videos
(Court TV) -- Each year before Labor Day, thousands of artists and seekers gather in the Nevada desert to experience a world beyond the constraints of everyday life. The fete, culminating with the burning of a 40-foot effigy, is called Burning Man, and it is billed by organizers as an "experimental community, which challenges its members to express themselves."
This self-expression takes the form of art, song, dance, theater -- and nudity. And where there's public nudity, there are bound to be cameras.
Enter Voyeur Video. For the past three years, the company has been filming nude women at the festival and selling the videotapes on its Web site. The organizers of Burning Man call this trespassing, trademark infringement and invasion of privacy, among other offenses, and they're suing the company. They accuse Voyeur of distributing "pornography and sexually explicit videos" while saying that Burning Man is a "social and spiritual event," according to court documents.
Voyeur's president, however, sees no harm in what his company does and does not consider it pornography.
"We just shoot what goes on. Just a bunch of happy naked videos," said the president, Jim O'Brien, a 40-year-old Los Angeles resident and self-described nudist. "Consider us a news company."
Voyeur Video, which O'Brien founded in 1989, currently offers 12 Burning Man videos at $29.95 each. The tapes -- sold on Voyeur's Web site alongside such titles as "Kinky Nude Beach Day" and "Springbreak Stripoffs" -- show naked women being painted, dancing and taking group showers, while the cameramen make comments like "Man, this is like Playboy," according to the suit.
Although the suit seeks an undisclosed amount of money, the event organizers' main concern is to "stop the marketing and distributing of the tapes," according to Terry Gross, a San Francisco attorney representing Burning Man in the suit.
The festival has made its feelings on such tapes clear, say its representatives. At the gates of the festival site, there is an 8-by-4-foot sign reading "No Commercial Use of Cameras Without Permission," according to Marian Goodell, the event's director of business and communications.
Videotaping is allowed for personal and some professional use, but only under contract. Goodell said she issues about 700 personal contracts and 100 professional each year.
"We don't want commercial relations. We don't need that clientele," said Gross, adding that CNN and MTV have been turned down in the past, and Voyeur was never granted a contract.
When Burning Man found out about Voyeur's videos in 1999, it threatened to sue if the selling did not stop. Instead of stopping the sale, Voyeur changed the festival's name on its Web site, the suit alleges, to "Rainbow Fire Festival," but kept the description. ("Rainbow Fire Festival is all running around naked and exposing yourself in front of your peers," the Web site now reads.) When the tapes were delivered, however, the "Burning Man" name was still labeled on the cassette and in the opening credits, according to the suit.
The festival, which began on a San Francisco beach with just 20 participants in 1986, has grown to more than 25,000 people of all ages. Held over the course of a week prior to and including Labor Day weekend, participants create massive sculptures and other visual and performance art. The event also aims to create a temporary community, where people must rely on each other for basic sustenance.
"Burning Man is unique in a lot of respects. The conditions are very harsh: No ATMs, no food [sold]," Goodell said, noting that the event is held in 100-degree weather and 100 miles from the nearest town. "People are put in a situation where they need to communicate."
Only about 10 percent of the participants take their clothes off, estimates Sunny Minedew, an independent film producer from Reno who was given permission to film the festival's arts and costumes. O'Brien says the percentage is closer to 50 percent.
O'Brien himself was the cameraman at Burning Man in 1997 and 1998, according to court documents, but for three years afterward, the tapes were purchased from freelancers, who make up to $1,500 for their raw footage, according to the "Jobs" portion of the Web site. Voyeur will not be present at this year's festival, which begins Monday.
Although he would not comment on the tapes, O'Brien said he was being "picked on" by the festival.
"I don't believe it's private at all. If it was, there'd be invitations. I compare it to Mardi Gras," he said. "We're helping them out. I'm sending them customers."
Unlike Mardi Gras, whose main events are free, Burning Man charges $135 to $250 for the week-long event. And the tickets are clearly marked with the warning, "Commercial use of images...is prohibited." Gross, Burning Man's lawyer, argues that just by accepting this ticket, Voyeur is legally bound to comply.
But in court documents, Voyeur's lawyer, Geoffrey Berkin, calls this "contract by ambush."
This isn't the first time Voyeur Video has had complaints from its videos' "stars."
On Oct. 7 last year, Brooklyn photographer Spencer Tunick, who travels around the world documenting nude bodies en masse, had 4,300 amateur models lined up in Melbourne, Australia, when Voyeur Video arrived on the scene to get its own video.
"I don't want to be on that site," Tunick told the Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper. "Nor do I want the people who posed for my art piece to be on that site."
Tunick, who told the paper he could not afford to hire a lawyer, didn't take his grievance as far as a lawsuit. But Burning Man's organizers plan to be in court Sept. 6 for a hearing on their complaint.
Said Goodell, "We don't encourage radical self-expression so people can find themselves for sale in a video store."
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