Replica galleon at Burning Man festival not visual art, court says

Wed Jun 8, 2016 2:37pm EDT
 
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By Dan Levine

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A school bus transformed into a replica 16th century Spanish galleon for the Burning Man counter-cultural festival was not "visual art" that can be protected under U.S. law, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

Simon Cheffins and Gregory Jones created the galleon, "La Contessa," by adding a facade, hull, decking and masts to a used school bus, according to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. They assembled it at Burning Man, a festival held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada that attracts artists and a large contingent of tech workers from Silicon Valley, among others.

"La Contessa" first appeared at Burning Man in 2002 and provided rides, hosted weddings, served as a stage for poetry shows and as a centerpiece for a children's treasure hunt. The structure was eventually banned from Burning Man because "its unsafe driving practices far exceeded community tolerance and out-weighed the visual contribution it made," the ruling said.

The galleon was eventually housed on private property, but in 2006 a new land owner intentionally burned it, the ruling said.

Cheffins and Jones sued, but the 9th Circuit ruled that since "La Contessa" began as a school bus, and was continually used for utilitarian purposes, it was "applied art," not "visual art" eligible for protection under a U.S. law designed to give artists additional rights over their works.

"While the 'La Contessa's' elaborate decorative elements may have had many artistic qualities, the 'La Contessa' retained a largely practical function even after it had been completed," the court ruled.

An attorney for Cheffins and Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Dan Grebler)