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Federal court backs Reno ruling regarding Burning Man bus-turned-ship

CARSON CITY — A used school bus is still a bus, even if it was elaborately transformed into a 16th-century Spanish galleon that sailed Northern Nevada’s desert sands before being torched for scrap when left on private property, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision by a magistrate judge in Reno that the vessel, La Contessa, once an iconic fixture at the annual Burning Man festival, was not protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.

The law, among other things, gives an artist the right to prevent intentional distortion, mutilation or destruction of a work.

The federal appeals panel said the massive ship structure — about 60 feet wide, 16 feet long with a towering 50-foot mast — was “applied art” as opposed to a “work of visual art.”

The ruling defined applied art as being “where the object initially served a utilitarian function and the object continues to serve such a function after the artist made embellishments or alterations to it.”

San Francisco artist Simon Cheffins and mechanical engineer Gregory Jones built the galleon that first appeared at Burning Man in 2002. It was banned from the annual arts and counterculture festival after 2004 because of safety concerns. The bus driver, with limited visibility, maneuvered the craft by radio directions from someone on the deck.

La Contessa was stored on private property with the permission of the owner, Joan Grant. But after her house burned down, she sold the property and moved out in 2005.

The new owner, Michael Stewart, acknowledged setting the art bus on fire to reduce it to scrap metal.

“On my property next to where Mrs. Grant’s burned trailer and partially burned shed was located an abandoned non-operating school bus built to look like a ship,” Stewart wrote in a statement as part of a sheriff’s investigation into the fire.

“It was more junk to me.”

Cheffins and Jones sued in 2009, seeking nearly $1 million in damages.

Federal magistrate Judge Robert McQuaid in Reno granted summary judgment in favor of Stewart and awarded him $44,496 in attorney fees, rulings affirmed by the 9th Circuit.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3821. Find @SandraChereb on Twitter.

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