11/09/2013

Does Spark Have a Place in the Gift Economy?

spark a burning man story on a torrent site
one of many file-sharing websites

With the apparent success of a recent documentary film, Spark: A Burning Man Story, the community and the organizers of the yearly art and music event to which the film owes its name face something that may not be new, but that brings up questions as to how far certain aspects of a so-called "shared ethos" within the community should go. The film, which was reviewed in the New York Times and screened in a few places around the US, is also, notably, available to view on-demand via digital download or streams on iTunes, VUDU, Amazon, Google Play, XBOX, Playstation, Roxio, as well as via Cable operators like Comcast. At this point though, no physical dvd or bluray releases appear to be available. This mostly digital release brings up the question, among those in the community that have noticed that it is available at no-cost on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, of whether or not it should be wrong to acquire it for free.


Among the list of ten things that are considered by event organizers as at the heart of what makes burning man what it is, and which guide the business and are intended to inform attendees, are Decommodification and Gifting. In the context of the event decommodification and gifting go hand and hand. Set up as a zone where no one is to commercialize the experience, and where people are to be free of profit making ventures impacting them, the economy of the event came to be referred to as a gift economy. Attendees at burning man, for the most part, can only purchase ice and coffee, selling things is forbidden, gifting items, and experiences, both small and large, is the norm.

The fact that burning man is a gift economy also extends to the attractions at the event, where nearly all of the attractions which the ticket-buying public come to see are paid for and brought by the ticket-buying attendees themselves. While the event organizers do provide a small stipend which covers some material costs for roughly 30 art projects a year, roughly 2000 projects are brought by uncompensated individuals and groups which pay for the privilege to attend. Some of the projects (which include arena sized music stages, 50 foot tall sculptures, over 500 roving art vehicles, and 1000 theme camps that form the interactive core of the event) brought by these uncompensated groups and individuals run up out of pocket costs well exceeding $10,000, some in the six figures range. 

The fact that people are, ostensibly, gifting their efforts, money, time, and resources for the enjoyment of all festival-goers when they bring the attractions that make burning man so appealing leads profit-making  ventures to be a real concern for some in the community who feel that those who make profit off of the event could be taking advantage of an amazing gifted backdrop. While Black Rock City LLC, which operates the event, surely makes a profit off of it many feel that, due to the nature of the event and its attractions, profit making ventures do not belong. The concern over profit making brings up the question of the over one dozen books and a dozen or so documentary films that use burning man as a backdrop for profit (authors/filmmakers and the LLC share profits) where those who created the entertaining backdrop go uncompensated. The LLC justifies these profit making ventures as acceptable, among other reasons, because the commerce is happening off-site. But, as some point out, if it were not for the efforts of those who gifted their camps, art, stages, and time there would be no subject for the books or film projects.

So, the uncompensated community comes to the question of whether or not it should be able to eat the fruit that it has sown, through generosity and gifts, without being forced to compensate those who seek to make money off of those gifts. For over twenty years file-sharers have felt that copying something wasn't stealing as nobody was deprived of a tangible object, and, without, at this point, a physical release to buy, some may be more bolstered to support that claim. Along with that possibly murky justification for acquiring a no-cost copy of Spark: A Burning Man Story via a peer-to-peer file-sharing network comes the ever important shared ethos of the burning man community, that many embrace, which includes gifting and decommodification.

Of the many questions that the community, and organizers alike, must face as burning man evolves one question that will likely come up more and more is: at what point must those who create works of media at burning man must abide by the so-called shared ethos of burning man. As burning man culture gets more and more digital, and as more and more individuals seek to reap profit off of the backdrop created by others, at some point it will have to decided whether or not it is in the best interests of everyone that some things are excluded from the call for decommodification. At some point it will have to be decided if it is in the best interests of everyone that some things are excluded from the gift economy. It seems like in the case of Spark: A Burning Man Story some file-sharing burners have already decided.