Burning Man co-founder sues ex-partners to put event name and logo in public domain

SAN FRANCISCO - There's trouble in the desert.

A co-founder of Burning Man, the annual six-day festival of self-expression that culminates in the torching of a 40-foot effigy on the salt flats of Northern Nevada, has sued his ex-partners to strip them of ownership of the event's name and logo and place the rights to their trademarks in the public domain.

John Law, who helped transform a series of small bonfire parties on a San Francisco beach into a phenomenon that drew more than 39,000 last year, filed suit against Burning Man board members Larry Harvey and Michael Mikel in federal court Tuesday.

Harvey and Mikel have both recently tried to claim sole ownership over Burning Man's trademarks, violating an agreement the three signed after Law split with the organization in 1996, Law alleged in the suit.

"I decided to fight to keep anyone from having an exclusive right to capitalize on these brands," Law wrote on his blog. "Burning Man belongs to everyone."

Law's suit also seeks unspecified damages from his ex-partners.

Both Harvey and Mikel were "surprised and disappointed" by the suit, said Marian Goodell, a spokeswoman for the corporation that runs Burning Man.

The pair has agreed to go into arbitration with each other in their own dispute over the rights to Burning Man's trademarks, Goodell said. "They're working to get these issues resolved in a reasonable manner," she said.

The announcement of the lawsuit on San Francisco culture blog Laughing Squid quickly spread across the Internet, spawning emotional debate among Burners, the self-given nickname for Burning Man participants.

Some supported Law's suit as a return to the ideals on which Burning Man was founded. Organizers bill it as "an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance."

Burning Man organizers have worked rigorously over the past decade to protect the event's name and what it stands for, turning down offers of corporate sponsorship and use of Burning Man images in advertising, Goodell said.

"It's kind of hard to imagine that the principles of Burning Man would remain intact if the name was in the public domain," Goodell said.

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