Monday, May 10, 2010

The Downfall of Fair Use on YouTube

The amount of videos on YouTube can sometimes be mind-boggling, and the popularity of certain ones even more so. It can be pretty amazing how quickly a video can go viral and get 1,000,000 views these days. For every Chocolate Rain or All the Single Babies there are often dozens of parodies trying to pickup on the success of the latest "big hit". While the term "parody" should probably be used with caution (knockoffs or fan videos may be more appropriate), it's hard to ignore that YouTube gives the average computer savvy user a chance to view a popular video, record their own version/parody/knockoff, and post it for the masses to see.

The quality of these parodies is often suspect and more often than not just frustrating to wade through in order find the original favorite. For what it's worth, I think my favorite franchise of videos on YouTube has to be the Downfall parodies. Downfall being the German film (Der Untergang) about Hitler's last day's in a bunker, waiting for the end of the Third Reich. The film itself is excellent, and Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Adolf Hitler is scary good. Tim Cavanaugh's April 21 article, "First They Came for Hitler...", in Reason magazine describes the parody videos better than I can:

"If you're unfamiliar with these parodies...Der Untergang...features a scene in which a bunker-trapped Hitler harangues his inner circle (in German) as the Russians close in on Berlin. A few years ago, some inspired genius put on new subtitles in which the F├╝hrer ranted about getting banned from Xbox Live rather than about the 11th-hour desertion of his generals. Because Hitler has been bringing the laughs at least since the Beer Hall Putsch, the result was pretty funny, and it spawned a vast genre...There's even one where the dictator is mad about all the people making Downfall parodies..."

As it turns out, not everyone finds these videos hilarious. Constantin Films, the German production company that owns the rights to Downfall (from which the rant clip originates), has filed copyright claims, resulting in many of these parodies being taken down from YouTube. While artists and filmmakers have a right to protect their copyright, these less than 4-minute clips are certainly not infringement. Although these works are clearly transformative, parodies, and under the protection of Fair Use, YouTube continues to remove them.

YouTube is often forced to act in order to protect itself by muting videos that feature copyrighted music or removing videos that are clearly pulled from copyrighted material and posted online for free viewership, and I understand YouTube's fears over being brought into court over copyright infringement, but the Google-owned site often acts too hastily before reviewing some of these copyright claims to see if they are valid. Yes, it's party of the site's policy and posters agree to its terms and conditions before they can post, but maybe it's time YouTube re-examines some of these policy before another, more savvy competitor pushes it by the wayside.

In the meantime, here are two of my favorite Downfall parodies:

  • Hitler's response to last fall's Virginia Tech/Nebraska football game. (I grew up a Virginia Tech fan and my brother-in-law is a Cornhusker, so its close to home, but football fans in general may be able to enjoy it.)
  • Hitler pissed at Kanye West for ruining Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the VMA's. (self-explanatory)

Enjoy them while you can.

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