When YouTube began shutting down video parodies of the movie Downfall, fans of the shrieking-Hitler vignettes cried foul. YouTube has taken a bunker mentality to the voluminous complaints over its acquiescence to the film’s owners. Reason TV offers three reasons why YouTube and Downfall‘s producers have not only hurt free speech, but also themselves (NSFW):
1. It’s fair use! The parodies, which transform a few minutes of a three-hour movie, are clearly legit under existing copyright laws. Because they clearly transform the original and have no possibility of confusing viewers, the parodies are clearly protected speech.
2. This is free promotion! As George Lucas could tell the filmmakers, fan-generated videos help keep the original source material vital and relevant. Lucas used to try to police all Star Wars knock-offs, until he realized that his audience was promoting his films more effectively than he ever could. More people have surely seen Downfall due to the popularity of the parodies.
3. Let’s keep the Internet creative! The greatest cultural development over the past 20 or so years has been technologies that allow producers and consumers to create and enjoy an ever-increasing array of creative expression in an ever-increasing array of circumstances. This development is nowhere more powerful than on the Internet, which has unleashed a whole new universe of writing, music, video, and more. Indeed, YouTube is itself one of the great conduits of cyberspace. Pulling down the Downfall parodies may be within YouTube’s rights, but it nonetheless strikes a blow to the heart of what is totally awesome about the Internet.
It’s fair use, but then again, YouTube isn’t a public utility, either. While the parodies appear to be entirely legit, as Reason notes, YouTube has every right to set its own terms of service. If they feel uncomfortable with shrieking-Hitler jokes, then it’s entirely their prerogative to remove them.
However, it’s also within the prerogative of their customers to find other video services with less constipated editorial policies. While YouTube is all but ubiquitous, it does have competitors: Eyeblast, Dailymotion, Viddler, LiveLeak, and others. Budding satirists will start looking for greener pastures if YouTube won’t abide by settled fair-use precedent. The beauty of the free market is that consumers and providers have the choice and the right to set their own terms — and when providers can’t meet the terms of their consumers, they usually wind up failing as a result.