How Hitler's downfall mocks your ideals

An MIT researcher tracks the rise and fall of the Hitler downfall video meme

A short clip from a 2004 movie about Adolf Hitler has ended up speaking for a generation of discontented Internet surfers, as well as pushed the boundaries of copyright law, noted a Massachusetts Institute of Technology social networking researcher who discussed the reasons behind the clip's wide appeal at the Open Video Conference in New York last Friday.

The snippet he discussed came from the 2004 German movie "Downfall," about Adolf Hitler's last days. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz played Hitler.

"Why do a large number of people like the Downfall meme?" asked Alex Leavitt, a research specialist at the MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium.

You've probably already seen this repurposed movie clip, though your reasons for seeing it may differ greatly. The clip itself portrays an angry Hitler in a bunker railing against his imminent downfall.

An untold number of people have recaptioned the clip as a form of protest, to express disappointment in anything from Apple's iPad's lack of multitasking, to the death of Michael Jackson, to lagging Burning Man attendance among one's peer group.

Leavitt estimated that the first use of this clip appears to have been posted in August 2006, in which it was used to communicate criticism about the Microsoft Flight Simulator software. The subtitles were in Spanish.

It has been difficult to estimate how many times this video has since been repurposed. Leavitt said he had no idea how many actual variants of this video have been made. "The fact that we can't measure how many there are across multiple video sites, communities and personal servers tells us how popular it has really become," he said.

In the clip, "Hitler's passionate anger [works] as a means of expression" for a wide variety of causes, he noted. Ganz's Hitler, surrounded by his minions, first appears to be gloomily studying a proposal of some sort. He asks a few apparently troubling questions, orders some people to leave the room, and then launches on a tirade that can be heard by trembling devotees out in the hallway. At least to those unfamiliar with the movie, it represents the moment a dictator crazed for world domination realizes his plans will come to naught.

As to its power, Leavitt mentioned New York Times' blogger Virginia Heffernan's 2008 conclusion that "Something in the spectacle of an autocrat falling to pieces evidently has widespread appeal. "

Leavitt also mentioned that the clip owes some of its utility to Ganz's acting skill. "Subtitles don't diminish his performance," he said. "The video is easily relatable because Ganz portrays raw emotion," of surprise, anger and despair, he said.

That it so successfully conveys these emotions, however, doesn't automatically grant the rights to people to use the clip, though. The last half of Leavitt's talk shifted to the question of if it was legal to reuse the clip for these purposes, given current copyright laws.

In April 2010, the German production company behind the film, Constantin Film, filed Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices with YouTube, Vimeo and other sites to remove the clips. (Not surprising, someone created a "Downfall" clip bemoaning the removal.)

"Hundreds of these videos were removed from YouTube, and while some of the creators went through the process and got their videos back up, dozens remain unavailable still," Leavitt said. "The problem is that a good portion of this creation community are amateurs and don't have the resources or even the knowledge to approach copyright issues."

Most people who upload these videos assume it is legal to do so, perhaps thinking they would be covered by the U.S. fair use doctrine of the copyright law that allows for short excerpts to be drawn from copyrighted works.

But fair use may not apply for these clips, warned audience member Elizabeth Stark, who is a Yale University lecturer in computer science. She noted that a court must decide what constitutes fair use, and mash-up-styled clips like "Downfall" are murky at best. Fair use allows for educational use, but these clips do not comment on the movie or the events it portrays. Nor are they works of parody, another legitimate fair use exception.

Still many of these types of clips remain posted despite their legal dubiousness, perhaps thanks to the multi-step process copyright owners need to go though to have them removed. Also in the audience was Google copyright lawyer Fred von Lohmann, who explained the YouTube DMCA takedown procedure.

A copyright owner can file a request with YouTube to block a particular video. In response, the YouTube account owner who uploaded the video can fill out a complaint on a YouTube dispute page. Once this file is claimed, YouTube will restore the video and present it to the copyright holders who originally claimed the copyright infringement.

In many cases, no further action is taken, von Lohmann explained. But, at that point the copyright owner can issue a formal DMCA takedown notice. In response, someone at YouTube will take down the video again and review it to judge if it falls under fair use. If it doesn't, it will remain unposted and the user can then file a counter notice.

"When you send a counter notice, you leave the content owner with only one remaining choice, which is to sue you," von Lohmann said. "You might want to think through the issues very seriously before sending a counter notice."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is