YouTube Doesn't Find Hitler Parodies So Funny

I had time to kill at work today and decided to skim my favorite video rebloging site. My eye caught on one video entitled “Hitler’s Lost iPhone Downfall”. Curiosity got the best of me and I clicked to watch (maybe the combination of “Hitler” and “iPhone” was just too odd to resist). After a few moments I realized that the video I was watching was a re-subtitled scene from the movie Downfall , featuring Hitler yelling at his commanding officers for a very tense 4 minutes. According to these new English captions, Hitler was furious about the recent leak of the 4G iPhone ( http://bit.ly/cVZRPz ).

As it turns out, this video is the most recent take on joke that’s been repeating on the internet for more than a year. In the fall of 2008, Hitler was disappointed to learn that his favorite beer would not be served during Oktoberfest ( http://bit.ly/aKqR5W ). In January, he was angered because the newly announced iPad didn’t live up to his dreams ( http://bit.ly/bmSKv2 ). And on and on…

What’s worth mentioning is that when this fad started, viewing these parodies was much easier. A recent post on The Open Video Alliance’s site ( http://bit.ly/9xQ544 ) notes that this clip is now being recognized by YouTube’s Content ID system and instantly removed. The Content ID system is a computer-automated way to vet video/audio as it is uploaded to YouTube. If the system recognizes certain “fingerprints” it will automatically disable that content. This is different from, say, a DMCA notice (Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998), which is a cease and desist order served to YouTube by the copyright holder.

The question of whether or not this is actually “Fair Use” is a whole argument unto itself, and one I’ve spent some time thinking about. (Diving into rabbit hole of questions like: Are the subtitles and the performance each separately copyrighted material? Does changing only one create a new work?) However, what really interests me is how we are designing our technology to police our laws and structure our digital heritage. In this case, a robot found scanned clips and found them out of sync with its software requirements – these mashups did not pass the computer’s test.

Now I’m not saying the computer was mistaken – a portion of the uploaded material is, in fact, under copyright – but rather making the point that copyright law is such a notoriously legal grey area. To compound the issue, the challenge system in place seems to strong arm the user/remixer into accepting this automatic judgement. In other words, you have the right to ask YouTube to review your content, but you are warned that, in doing so, you’re opening up a can of worms. In order for your “counter-notice” to be accepted, you must supply your contact information, a signature, a statement under penalty of perjury that the “material was removed or disabled as a result of a mistake or misidentification,” and your consent to the jurisdiction of your local federal court. Most users don’t take it that far for fear of being sued (though none have. More info here: http://bit.ly/RFbb9 )

So, what does this mean for our ever-expanding digital culture? Will copyright holding corporations always loom over mashup artists? If everyone is afraid of being sued by billionaire CEO’s, many creative people might just stop uploading perfectly legal content to the web.

And what about marketing? It seems fan-made work on the internet is the best form of advertising a company could hope for, still, others clearly disagree. And, even though YouTube offers a “monetizing” option (copyright holders can link their advertisements to mashup videos and make a profit off of those page hits), will enough companies choose it and invest in understanding viral marketing?

But, perhaps most importantly, will the terms of “Fair Use,” as vague as they are, ever be renegotiated? The last time Congress addressed these issues the internet was only just gaining a foothold in popular culture and web 2.0 had not yet taken off. More than a decade later, user provided content is the norm for the internet, and I think we all might benefit from some renewed standards.

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