Skip to main content

Hitler parody videos latest copyright fight

By Jacqui Cheng
Parodies of the German film "Downfall" are being pulled off of YouTube in a copyright dispute.
Parodies of the German film "Downfall" are being pulled off of YouTube in a copyright dispute.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Spoof video clips from "Downfall," a German movie about Hitler, were being pulled off of YouTube this week
  • Film company is using YouTube rule to take videos down, while advocates argue they are fair use
  • Meanwhile, the director of "Downfall" has called the videos funny and a compliment to him
RELATED TOPICS

(Ars Technica) -- One of the longer-lasting Internet memes in recent years has been the parody trend of the 2004 German film Der Untergang (also known as "Downfall").

If you have spent more than a couple of hours on the internet over the past couple of years, you have likely seen at least one or two of these clips, and if you are an aficionado, you know that there are plenty of them.

That's why it was surprising when many of these parodies recently disappeared from YouTube thanks to "Downfall" producer Constantin Film. Taking advantage of YouTube's Content ID system, Constantin has decided enough is enough, and copyright advocates are calling foul.

The clips in question always show the bunker scene from the movie, overlaid with new subtitles -- Hitler getting mad at Twitter being down, Hitler being upset about the plot of "Avatar," Hitler reacting to Kanye West running out on stage with Taylor Swift, Hitler planning to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 -- you get the drift.

There's even one about how the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) takedown system is constantly abused to prevent fair uses of videos.

(The latter was created by Electronic Frontier Foundation board member Brad Templeton, who went to great lengths last May to ensure that his clip was created legally).

Many of these were taken down fromYouTube by Constantin Film this week, though some have already disputed the takedowns or uploaded their videos elsewhere.

As detailed by both the EFF and on Templeton's personal blog, Constantin did not actually use the traditional DMCA takedown route that most others use in order to target video clips uploaded by other users.

Instead, the movie company used YouTube's Content ID filter, which essentially gives copyright holders direct access to videos on the site thanks to audio and video fingerprinting.

The idea is to give copyright holders the ability to monetize their content uploaded by other users or block it, and they can block varying levels of it depending on their own tastes.

A YouTube spokesperson told Ars that copyright owners are allowed to decide what level of "fair use" they're comfortable with -- they can choose to keep content under a minute long online while blocking longer clips, for example.

Copyright owners can also choose to keep videos that use under a certain percentage of their content while blocking those with more.

This, of course, allows copyright owners to go as far as they want. If they so choose, they can flip the switch on everything they don't like -- even if the clips otherwise constitute fair use -- and watch the videos disappear. The EFF has publicly hammered YouTube to tighten its ContentID requirements, but the company seems content to let copyright owners themselves determine what's OK and what's not.

All users can do is submit a dispute through YouTube.

This is the reason the system is controversial, as it allows copyright holders to take content down without having to work within the legal limits of the DMCA. Content ID bypasses the DMCA, as it's merely a partnership between YouTube and copyright holders who choose to make use of the system.

Although affected users can dispute their takedowns, it's not as cut and dried as a typical DMCA takedown would be.

There's another perplexing element to this discussion, too: "Downfall's" director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, seemingly is a fan of the parodies.

In an interview with New York Magazine earlier this year, Hirschbiegel said that he has seen about 145 clips and that one of his favorites features the Fuher having difficulty getting tickets to the broadway musical "Billy Elliott."

"Many times the lines are so funny, I laugh out loud, and I'm laughing about the scene that I staged myself! You couldn't get a better compliment as a director," Hirschbiegel told the magazine.

"The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality. I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like. If only I got royalties for it, then I'd be even happier."

Hirschbiegel may have said that last line tongue-in-cheek, but it seems his production company is a little more serious.

We tried to get comment from both Constantin Film and Hirschbiegel on the latest turn of events, but did not hear back from either by publication time. Although we have had some luck finding "Downfall" parodies that have not yet been removed from YouTube, there are plenty of others that remain offline (one digital movie class even made the parodies as an assignment, and only three remain).

As for whether these videos are fair use parodies, that's a question that is usually answered by the courts -- another complex element to this discussion, as "Downfall" was created by a German company, and the laws there are different than in the US.

Still, critics say that spinoffs created in the US still fall under US guidelines.

"I haven't seen every 'Downfall' parody, and I can't say with certainty that all of them are clear fair uses," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry told Ars. "That said, the ones I have seen strike me as very strong fair use cases."

COPYRIGHT 2011 ARSTECHNICA.COM