Hitler Parodies Booted Off YouTube: Death of a Web Meme?

YouTube has recently begun removing videos that feature content from Constantin Films' 2004 film, Der Untergang ("Downfall"), despite the fact that many of these videos are parodies and thus constitute fair use of the material.

The Downfall, or Hitler-parody, meme has been, arguably, a viral spat of publicity for Constantin Films in the past few years. The meme takes a now-infamous scene from the movie (the scene in which Hitler reacts to the news that Germany is about to lose the war) and puts satirical subtitles over the action (the movie is in German). Hitler parodies have been made for everything from "Hitler finds out Tony Romo dumped Jessica Simpson," to "Hitler is Fired from Whataburger," to, more recently, "Hitler Responds to the iPad."

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), these videos are being removed because of YouTube's automated Content I.D. system, which allows copyright owners to disable any videos that contain its content--regardless of whether the videos may be legitimate because they contain other elements. Many of the parodies are still up, as YouTube's Content I.D. system is not perfect--but it's probably only a matter of time before the filtering system hunts them down and removes them.

Of course, the real question is: why? Why has Constantin Films chosen to suddenly claim copyright on these clips after six years--especially when the clips generate interest from parties who are otherwise unlikely to even look at the film (the film, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, was independently produced and is entirely in German). Certainly plenty of wayward YouTubers and Internet-goers have been driven to discover the source of the clips that provide them with so much entertainment. So, yes, you wonder why Constantin Films is suddenly putting the kibosh on this obvious stream of free publicity.

Even the director of Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, thinks the parodies are funny. He told New York Magazine in January 2010: "Someone sends me the links every time there's a new one. I think I've seen about 145 of them! Of course, I have to put the sound down when I watch. 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."

Some of Hirschbiegel's favorite parodies include the one where Hitler hears of Michael Jackson's death, and the one in which Hitler can't get Billy Elliot tickets--both of which have been blocked by Constantin's copyright claims. Hirschbiegel thinks the parodies are a good thing, too--"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," he told New York Mag, "I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like."

What Constantin Films should do is file a DMCA complaint--the DMCA files parodies under "fair use," so our beloved internet meme won't die--but will also protect Constantin Films from what (I assume) it actually fears--legitimate copyright infringement. Appropriately, I'll leave you with a Hitler parody created by the EFF's own Brad Templeton, in which Hitler discovers that parodies are being made and orders them taken down:

Hitler, as "Downfall producer" orders a DMCA takedown from Brad Templeton on Vimeo.

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