Tuesday, April 20, 2010
The Downfall of Fair Use?
Like countless others, I've enjoyed the multitude of so-called "Downfall Hitler" parodies on YouTube. Each parody superimposes amusing English subtitles over a pivotal scene from the 2004 German film Der Untergang (Downfall).
The movie is about the last days of Adolf Hitler as he waits in his bunker for the end of World War II, but dozens - perhaps hundreds - of budding editors have twisted Hitler's dialogue to comment on all manner of pop culture topics, from the fight between Clinton and Obama for the Democratic nomination to the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray war to Edmonton Oilers performances on the hockey rink.
Now the film's rightsholders are using technology to strip the videos off of YouTube, despite the protection these works should have as parodies or derivative works. You can see the results in the video above. The parodist may need to work on his spelling, but the point remains powerful; large media companies are stifling creativity and free expression, even when the so-called infringement does no harm to the original work. In fact, I am certain that the Downfall parodies have inspired thousands, perhaps millions, of people to seek out the original film.
As an artist - however middling - I believe that authors and creators of all kinds should be fairly compensated for their work. But not at the cost of hampering expression.
Thanks to changing copyright rules, some works that should have been in the public domain years or decades ago remain in the hands of estates or big corporations, long after the creators and their immediate family have died. Warner Brothers, it seems, will never allow Superman to fall into the public domain. Nor will Sherlock Holmes. And that's a shame, because just imagine if Kenneth Branagh or Joss Whedon or Margaret Atwood had the freedom (and the desire, of course; I'm assuming much, here) to craft new stories based on the original concepts. Imagine if Bram Stoker had written Dracula just a few years later; we may never have seen Coppola's version, or the various Hammer Draculas; for that matter, the character couldn't have appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer without expensive clearances. Dracua haunts the public domain, so all of us are free to write stories about him, just as Disney has been free to make movies about scores of public domain stories.
Draconian content rules threaten to freeze popular culture in the early twentieth century. Even worse, they're beginning to restrict political thought and expression.
Fair use is an important right. We shouldn't let corporations take it away.
Thanks to Mike Totman for inspiring this post.