We spoke with artist Matthias Fritsch, who faced a prolonged legal battle after his video of Techno Viking went viral.
Photo courtesy of Matthias Fritsch
Germany's Techno Viking is one of the internet's most beloved memes. In the four-minute video, filmed at Berlin's street festival Fuckparade in 2000, a ripped, zshirtless German—later dubbed the "Techno Viking"—scolds an obnoxious male raver for shoving a woman in the crowd, sips a bottle of water delivered by one of his subservient minions, and finally breaks into an exuberant dance to hard techno. The video immortalized its subject, whose comical appearance, Robin Hood-like moral stance, and objectively fabulous dance moves sparked thousands of fan-made GIFs, YouTube videos, T-shirts, and even a line of novelty action figures, complete with authentically mis-matched socks.
But the viral clip also turned into a legal nightmare for German artist and documentary filmmaker Matthias Fritsch, the person who filmed the now-infamous scene.
In 2009, almost a decade after Fritsch's video hit the internet, he received a cease-and-desist letter from the lawyers of the man who appeared in the clip, alleging that Fritsch did not secure the "personality rights" needed to post it. The man—who turned out to be a very private person, and whose name has never been made public—took Fritsch to court, demanding that he remove not just the original video from the internet, but also all the user-created parodies, remixes, and mash-ups. The ensuing legal battle became the first case in Germany to pit privacy laws against the "remix" culture of the internet, posing an increasingly pressing question: where do we draw the line when an unwitting human being with no desire for public exposure becomes the subject of a global meme?
After a prolonged, three-year legal battle, the Berlin District Court ruled that Fritsch was only allowed to use the images of Techno Viking if they were manipulated such a way that he couldn't be identified, and that the fan-based content could remain online. Fritsch, who was already researching meme culture and Internet recycling, decided to make a documentary about the whole experience, believing his case represented an important ruling in internet history. According to Fritsch, the Techno Viking story demonstrates the extent to whichmemes still exist in a legal grey area determined by the subjective views of individual judges—and why we need new rules to govern a rapidly-evolving internet culture.
In 2013, he launched an IndieGoGo campaign to fund the film, and even though he didn't get all the money he wanted, Fritsch still ended up completing his project last year. Last week, on October 15, Fritsch finally released a 50-minute edit what was originally a 90-minute film, posting the final version online for free in accordance with his belief in open-source internet culture. Over an email exchange that began in 2013—right after the court's ruling—we spoke with Fritsch about his documentary, what the judge's verdict means for art on the internet, and of course, what happened to Techno Viking after all of this hoopla.
THUMP: Since you weren't allowed to use Techno Viking's images, how did you shoot the documentary?
Matthias Fritsch: "Techno Viking" is much more than only the protagonist's image. It's a viral phenomenon that has thousands of variations. Most of them include original media from my film "kneecam no.1," but it inspired a lot of completely user-generated content, such as comics, 3D animations, drawings, oil paintings, sculptures, action figures, blogs, and articles.
Why do you think Techno Viking has been so strongly opposed to you using his image? Have you communicated with him?
I have tried, but unfortunately he refuses every communication and I am only allowed to communicate to his lawyer. After the video went viral, I tried to find out who he is and how to reach him, but gave up, and was sure that he would contact me sooner or later.
Did you shoot the video from a secret or hidden camera? At some points, the footage looks like it was stuffed in a bag. Is it problematic that Techno Viking didn't know he was being filmed?
No, the camera was not hidden and had a huge wide-angle fisheye lens. I was holding it in my hands at the height of my knees. [Techno Viking] also looks for a second into the camera while dancing.
Do you think the ruling was unfair? Can you explain why you've called the trial "absurd"?
I think the ruling showed that the judges don't understand the art part of my work. They don't see the conceptual frame. Still, the judges ruled that users that create comics, drawings, re-enactments and other fan reactions that do not use the original material should be allowed to express themselves. That's something. The trial is absurd since [Techno Viking] wants himself out of the internet, which is of course not possible with such a viral phenomenon. Additionally, the Streisand effect is putting even more attention to the meme. It doesn't make any sense to try to solve this in court. It would have made much more sense to try settling this on a more human level, and share the income that was already made when he approached me.
How much money did you make off the video?
Before he sent his first lawyer, I earned 10,000 euros over a period of two years, basically from YouTube ads.
How did your experience with Techno Viking shape your views about Internet memes and art?
The Techno Viking phenomenon got me in contact with the extremely fast and dynamic meme culture, which is most likely the most intense form of pop culture these days.
Were you one of the first people to get sued for starting a meme? What are the existing laws to govern internet culture, and do you think we need new laws?
In Germany, this was the first case of a meme in court. The laws that led the judgment are 100 years old. They don't work with meme culture since such phenomena are global, and can't be controlled. Users that remix viral material act in a risky territory. For instance, in the case of the Techno Viking video, everybody here in Germany that is using the original material risks getting into a similar legal situation as I did: facing thousands of euros just to figure out in court what the legal situation is. And still, [the verdict] totally depends on the judges. That is no basis for a playful and vivid remix culture like what we can see on the web. The laws here in Germany need an implementation of fair use that makes it easier to orient what is possible, and where is the border.
What's happened in the two years since the verdict?
[Techno Viking] appealed and wanted to censor the comic variations and silhouette in an already-censored film still that I used on my website. It took the court a long time, but they didn't want to follow his appeal, suggesting that he should withdraw it himself in order to pay fewer fees. If the court officially rejects the case, [the fees] are double than if you withdraw. As a result of his withdrawal, the judgment from 2013 became valid.
How has this experience affected the way you approach making films?
Since the verdict became valid, I know the borders. But unfortunately not 100 percent, because the verdict is a bit vague when it comes to what it means to censor the plaintiff enough. Some lawyers even believe that a silhouette is still a violation of personality rights.
How has Techno Viking's life changed since he went viral?
I can't tell. On paper, his lawyers wrote that he was approached by right wing people, that he lost jobs, that somebody recognized him while driving a bicycle. Nothing was ever proven during the trial.
Is Techno Viking internet-savvy? Do you think he understands how internet culture works?
I cant tell. Officially, it took him two years to find out that he became world famous. Maybe he has no good advisor to explain what the Streisand effect is, and how the dynamics of the internet communities work. Or maybe he has his own agenda.
Have you had any contact with the Techno Viking recently?
Unfortunately I never got the chance to talk to [him]. I told his lawyer again and again that I would like to meet up in person, but there was no interest from the other side. I address this issue in the end of the film. I hope we get the chance one day to meet. After all, we kind of sit in the same boat—we both lost control, but have very different approaches to how we dealt with it.
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.