Misplaced fury in the copyright bunker

What an extraordinarily foolish decision by Constantin Films to pull its ranting Hitler clips from YouTube. When you create one of the world’s most popular pieces of viral content, and then clumsily try to pull it, you become a killjoy on a massive global scale, snatching away a toy that millions of people were enjoying in our shared digital playground.

Through probably few of us have seen the movie,Downfall, we’ve no doubt all seen the intense scene in which the Führer is told of the inevitability of defeat dozens of times in itsvarious incarnations. Combined with subtitles addressing a considerably more frivolous topic than the end of the Third Reich, his electrifying fury is rendered highly amusing. Practically all the stories that have temporarily caught the interest of our capricious culture have been translated into a Hitler rant, from Senator Conroy’s internet Maginot Line, toHey Hey‘s return to our Lebensraums, to Kanye’s blitzkrieg of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Awards. Taken together, the clips form as a comprehensive record of the memes that have distracted the world from its work the past year or so. They are a valuable historical record of our inexhaustible appetite for wasting time on the internet.

But now Constantin Films has decided we can view this archive of our own whimsy no more. And in one sense I can see why they’ve made this decision. I’m sure that at the climax of what was apparently an excellent film, projected twenty feet high in a darkened space, the performance is extremely powerful, leaving the audience as terrified as Hitler’s sidekicks. And the film is, of course, part of an ongoing process of the utmost seriousness – Germany’s attempt to wrestle with the demons of its horrifying recent past. Let’s face it, the resubtitling is not exactly respectful of the filmmakers’ craft.

But the undeniable fact is that in a tiny YouTube window, deliciously devoid of context, the scene is very funny, precisely because it’s so serious to begin with. Though this performance is probably entirely accurate, viewed in isolation it’s hammier than a pork-themed episode ofBaywatch. And while that obviously wasn’t intended, there’s no denying the judgement of the marketplace.

But in its own way, mocking the last century’s premier bogeymen has a certain value. By laughing at Hitler, by making him ridiculous, we strip him of his power to frighten us. Plus, it’s just plain fun to subtitle notorious villains, as The Chaser discovered when we began producing ourMessage From Osama videos. Fortunately for us, the rights holder Al Qaeda is more interested in implementing sharia copyright law via its planned global caliphate than issuing petty takedown notices to decadent Westerners who remix its content.

If even Osama bin Laden is liable to have his work reinterpreted on the internet, so are all content producers. The ubiquitous availability of video and audio editing software, and the advent of free video sharing services, has made this almost ridiculously easy. It was little wonder, then, that one of the first responses to Constantin’s move was another subtitled video of Hitler getting angry about it.

As hard as film producers might like to try, this genie simply can’t be put back in the bottle. Even if all the clips are taken down from YouTube, there are still countless other video-sharing services – the response clip I linked to above was on Vimeo, for instance. Furthermore, in many places, adapting other people’s copyright material for parody and satire is legal. Recent changes to Australian copyright law have guaranteed this principle, to the great delight of our nation’s piss-takers. So while it may be a violation of YouTube’s terms of service, it would seem that there’s nothing wrong about subtitling a clip like this, at least in Australia.

The more sensible response from Constantin would have been to use the clip’s surprise popularity to promote their DVD. Millions more people have now heard of their film, after all. They could have released a web ad where Hitler gets angry because he can’t find a copy in his local Blockbuster Video, or created a subtitle-your-own video toy to allow users to produce their own clips and share them (as we did with Osama, in fact). They could even have included a selection of the best examples as a DVD extra. Gratitude to the web for giving their 2004 movie a new life might have been a more appropriate response, even if as filmmakers they didn’t realise they were making a highly popular comedy sketch.

In this online world of endless appropriation and adaptation, the greatest crime is not using another’s work, it’s failing to have a sense of humour about it when it happens to you. While the film’s director has shown an wonderful sense of humour about this, Constantin have not. Instead, they’ve gone from obscurity to infamy overnight, and it won’t help them sell a single extra copy ofDownfall. Which is a shame, because I hear it’s quite good. Especially that scene where Hitler loses it.

This article originally appeared at The Drum. There are some great comments on it over there.

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