Sunday, May 2, 2010

Woe is Meme

By now you've probably heard that the distributors of "Der Untergang," aka "Downfall," the source of the four-minute clip of an Adolf Hitler tantrum that has been repurposed by dozens of enterprising young video editors for the now-ubiquitous "Hitler Meme," are pulling all the videos featuring their clips off of Youtube, said meme videos included. The reaction has been vocal and negative from many corners.

The move seems completely counterproductive, as the meme videos provide endless free advertising for "Downfall," and the director and others involved with the film have voiced their hearty approval that Adolf Hitler has now become the Internet patron saint of lost causes. And there's the free speech consideration, since many of the best known Hitler meme videos contain political diatribes, including ones railing against Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and the prime minister of Malaysia. And even the most frivolous entries, where Hitler takes on Xbox, the Daytime Emmy Awards, and other meme videos, would qualify as parody.

There are plenty of arguments that the owners' actions were justified. If the company views the videos as a copyright violation, they're certainly well within their rights to enforce them. Youtube is an international operation, and other countries don't have the same speech safeguards that the United States does. The Hitler meme videos are in dozens of different languages and comment on many local subjects from around the world. There's the concern that some of the videos are personally abusive or potentially libelous, and the company claims that it received complaints about them. If an offended party wanted to take legal action, there is a remote chance of some liability on the part of the owners of "Downfall," if it could be shown that they knew about the videos and tacitly approved of them.

But there is no user-friendly process to challenge these takedowns. Youtube uses an automatic system known as Content ID to scour the site for infringing material. There is an appeals process, but it's labyrinthine and fairly arbitrary, as described on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Guide to YouTube Removals. It's no wonder that most of the meme video owners simply pick up and move to another video hosting site or give up altogether. The system is so heavily biased toward protecting the interests of commercial rights owners, it would probably take another corporation making its own Hitler meme video in order to establish that, yes, Hitler ranting about Kanye West falls under a fair use exception to copyright - in the United States anyway.

On the other hand, there's no way for the copyright holders of "Downfall" to kill the Hitler meme completely. Many of the videos have been reposted, either to Youtube or to other sites. The Hitler videos went viral in 2008, rising to special prominence with the 2008 presidential primaries. Millions have seen them in one form or another over the intervening years, and the better question might be why the owners of "Downfall" waited until now to assert their claims. Within hours of the Youtube takedowns, another video appeared with Hitler blasting – you guessed it – Youtube and the rights' holders for ordering the takedowns.

In short, the corporate powers might win in the short term, but they're fighting a losing battle with the internet. As long as interest in the "Downfall" videos exists, they'll keep being produced. If the "Downfall" producers were so worried about the proliferation of the meme, the best thing they could have done was to let it reach the end of its life cycle naturally, from lack of interest. By drawing attention back to the Hitler videos when ordering the takedowns, ironically, they've renewed interest in the parodies and spurred the creation of new variations. They've sent the message that there's no official approval of the meme videos, thereby distancing themselves from any potential liability, but the Hitler meme remains alive and well. And the Fuhrer himself will endure to fight another day – perhaps against Muhammad for overshadowing him in the recent "South Park" controversy.

No comments:

Post a Comment