Even If They’re Right, They’re Wrong. And Hurting Themselves.

I wrote about the wildly-popular Hitler YouTube meme last October.  The joke is simple: you simply add subtitles over Hitler’s rant in the powerful film Downfall to address whatever current event you choose; the more jarringly banal, the better.  For the past few years, it has been lovely, lovely fun to see Bruno Ganz’ compelling performance repurposed to address everything from NFL games to the Twilight films.

But not anymore.

According to all sorts of internet sources, from TechCrunch to MoviefoneConstantin Film–the German Studio behind the 2004 Academy Award nominated movie–decided to take action against these parodies, claiming copyright infringement.  They argue that the footage is their content, therefore they have the right to block it’s posting, even in these altered forms.

Speaking from direct, personal experience, this is a foolishly shortsighted decision.  The film was released in German, it’s six years old, it has no Hollywood stars and did very little American box office.  And yet thanks to this meme, tens of millions of viewers have experienced Ganz’ hypnotic performance and the note-perfect tension of the large actor ensemble, thus keeping the movie alive.  How many people saw a clip or two and added Downfall to their Netflix cue?  How many people picked up a copy at Blockbuster?

Or better still, how many people actually went out and bought the DVD like I did?

This meme is the best audience-expanding marketing tactic the filmmakers could have hope for.  Simply put, it sells copies and drives rentals.  Constantin Film’s oddly-delayed but still knee jerk reaction shows a tin ear to the circumstances of the perceived infringment (advocates contend the clips are actually protected as works of parody).  Director Oliver Hirschbiegel agrees, referring to the phenomenon in interviews by saying he “couldn’t get a better compliment as a director.”

This fracas perfectly illustrates content-providers’ struggle with the evolving nature of control in a marketplace, or at least a social space, controlled by consumers.  Used to the total control afforded by one-way communication, adapting to the vagaries and inconsistency of two-way forums proves truly challenging, to both brand managers and their legal counsel alike.  They all wrestle with this one basic issue: “How much control do you allow?”

Or more to the point, “How much control will you accept?”

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79