The Story of Technoviking: The Film
The Story of Technoviking, release date today, 15 Oct 2015 (50m06s, free to watch online): http://technoviking.tv/film
Writing parody mash-up on my blog while looking for inspiration in movie scenes made me realise two things: (1) That it’s still my strongest point writing-wise, and (2) Youtube kicks everyone’s ass!
In terms of public use, Youtube is the home of re-imagination. Whether the original muse is a movie, news story, pop promo, video game, or social commentary meme, it’s where users upload their re-interpretations, parodies, mutations, reactions, songs and art inspired by images appearing in the curated mainstream and entering the awareness of the social media sphere.
Perhaps the earliest cult internet muse inspiring an ongoing global artistic phenomenon is the Youtube uploader Subrealic.
Subrealic is the user name of Matthias Fritsch, a film-maker from Germany who took what appeared to be random public footage in a series of different locations, and posted them independently some time before joining Youtube.
The video in question was a candid single-shot in-camera sequence called ‘Kneecam No.1’ captured by Matthias at the Berlin Fuck Parade, a protest street event in response to what many underground EDM (electronic dance music) fans considered to be the over-commercialised Love Parade taking place in the city at the same time in 2000.
Matthias says: “The reason why I filmed this was to document the Fuck Parade as an event. Why I published this sequence was not to show the Fuck Parade but to raise a question for the audience: Is what you see real or staged? To create an uncertainty. I named it ʽKneecam No.1’ and ʽNo.1’ stands for a series of experimental videos that deal with the role of the camera… I started to upload my videos to YouTube to make them more accessible because it was much easier to host videos there than on my own website.”
The Kneecam No.1 video showed a short segment of the street protest party, filmed from the back of a moving trailer playing a mix of rave tunes by Can-D-Music and Winstan vs. Noia, while party-goers followed.
It captured a small moment of conflict, and its resolution by a figure intervening on the distracted parade with undeniable alpha-male status, who then reasserts the purpose of the event by leading the group in dancing behind the trailer for several minutes, before disappearing again.
Although the earliest reactions to the video came only in the form of comments debating the authenticity of the piece and whether it was an arranged set-up, once it began to be shared and re-posted on forums and other websites, the cult of personality of the alpha-male ‘character’ in Kneecam No.1 developed.
Matthias was on a trip to China when he received this email comment: “The video has been posted by someone 2 days ago and now there are 1 990 256 view. I have never see that before on the web. What is the name of those songs in the film? He needs to be on a T-shirt too. Thank you very much.”
Commenters on forums responded to it with custom memes and reaction images, and shortly, reaction videos. In one forum, the ʽstar’ was nominated for a title:
“He doesn’t dance to the music, the music dances to him. His name: Technoviking.”
As soon as the nickname Technoviking was coined, the cult status of the video was confirmed. The character was given the type of hero status reserved for action movie icons, compared to Chuck Norris.
Matthias began to collect and document Technoviking references to study what was occurring in the virtual world once it became apparent that this was a viral internet phenomenon.
“A whole Technoviking universe seemed to appear. So what I did was collect all those responses to my video. And of course most of them were remixes of the original video. So I put together an archive based on this Technoviking meme in order to study the behaviour of users online.”
Youtube users, artists, cartoonists, toy-makers, printers, songwriters and console gaming fans were soon using the original Kneecam No.1 film as a muse to create objects and scenarios in art based around the perceived leading character. The subsequent productivity and social awareness that surrounded Kneecam No.1 far outweighed the original – it had a self-regenerating, self-perpetuating, self-mutating life of its own.
Kirby Ferguson, from the film Everything Is A Remix Part 4, 2011: “This is evolution. Copy, transform, combine.”
Over the years, the film has been re-contextualised with alternative music, animations, re-scripted subtitles and voice dubs. It has been re-enacted hundreds of times over, with students, dolls, hula-hoop performances, in living rooms and outdoors, and uploaded by Youtubers sharing their enthusiasm for the Berlin Fuck Parade encounter scene and the mysterious individual known only as Technoviking, originally curated in Kneecam No.1.
Heinz Drügh, Professor of New German Literature and Aesthetics at Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, states: “It is a bit like the butterfly effect. Something that was not created for a big dimension got such a huge echo. Especially by taking into consideration that most things in the Internet are not getting any attention.”
Technoviking as a cult celebrity figure has been printed on mugs, t-shirts, appeared in graphic novel sequences, and even as in-game characters, epitomising the alpha male action hero – only as inspiration taken from real life, not a Hollywood movie set.
Matthias, his film only the trigger for all of the extended creativity that followed it, made a modest sum of money over a period of two years when Youtube invited him to monetize his video with advertising, and by selling a few t-shirts. The majority of his efforts were focused on studying the viral influences of Technoviking, where the marketing of products by others based on the video’s character were more visible and aggressive, and where other individuals in the world were sharing and reinterpreting its influences.
He was also making efforts to trace the man himself, hoping to share the phenomenon with him and ensure that the benefits of the original video’s cult status were available mutually.
“…After the video went viral in 2007 I started to search in different gyms by calling them, because I thought he is from Berlin and a body builder, so he must be known in one or the other studio…”
He kept coming up against dead ends, but eventually after a number of years, contact was made – in the form of a Cease and Desist order from the individual’s lawyer.
The most famous unsuspecting internet cult hero of the early 21st Century only wanted his privacy and ‘the right to be forgotten’.
Matthias had to agree to remove the original Kneecam No.1 and all of his own ancillary products.
That part was simple enough. For the complainant, there are a myriad more cases of ‘use of his image’ and constant re-postings of the video by other users to pursue.
It’s a case of ‘Life imitating art imitating life’ – a character inspired by a real individual, given the themes of justice-seeker and superhero by the public, arts and the entertainment world, prompts the individual concerned to pursue his own global justice and protect his own right to privacy.
The man formerly known as Technoviking will indeed take you down, just as the many memes suggested his character would.
Remember also that this is a private individual – not a celebrity. He has nothing to lose by pursuing enforcement of his image rights.
Antonio Broumas, Digital Rights Attorney, Digital Liberation Network: “I am very interested in the result of this case. It actually determines many things regarding what we are doing on the Internet. What can be uploaded to YouTube? How can we use people’s photos in public places? What is permitted and what is not? And I believe that the aim of the court in these cases will have to be to make things clear for the citizens.”
Meanwhile, Matthias Fritsch, the Youtube uploader formerly known as Subrealic, has made a case-study documentary of the Kneecam No.1 viral video’s influence to date and the worldwide phenomenon it prompted, leading to the image rights case being brought against him by the perceived ‘star’ – the individual concerned. It’s both a cautionary tale and an evolutionary one regarding the global arts community, including commentary and interviews with legal, social and arts experts.
The documentary covers issues an artist will encounter when using material ‘found in reality’ and regarding visual image copyright and distribution when the image contains persons and their rights. There are forms of explicit consent required for specific further use of the images, beyond merely collecting them.
It explodes the myths regarding the right to use images or footage from crowd scenes, namely the ‘Five or more persons’ myth.
Louisa Specht, Personality Rights Expert, ZAR Karlsruhe: “The ʽ5 Person Myth’ doesn’t exist as a law. I am allowed to record parades and demonstrations without the agreement of the depicted people, but when an individual stands out from the crowd this exception doesn’t apply anymore.”
It also dissects what is essentially art and public property – such as whether an individual can claim rights over an image that contains elements of earlier appropriation, whether those are actions or personal style, or the context of their appearance and behaviour. The argument over ‘fair use’ has grounds in whether art inspired by individuals and scenes found in reality, whose own inspiration for image is inspired by earlier identifiable arts and personality icons, can even be claimed as a private or personal image in any new context that an artistically-revised version gives it.
Felix Stalder, Professor of Digital Culture and Net Theory in Zurich: “The owner has to be aware that he takes or that she has taken from the public – so he/she has to grant the public also the right to take from him/her.”
Something that’s inspired me in the past is the trend on Youtube for re-edits of trailers and movie clips, by fans. My brothers and I used to do our own re-dubbed voice-overs for Star Trek when we were kids, on an ancient VHS rental with a Play/Rec/Dub setting. Must have been the earliest invented!
For example, I published my parody The Zombie Adventures of Sarah Bellum after writing it chapter-by-chapter on my blog, linking to movie scenes that were my muses and mashed-up music remixes on Youtube. I wanted to show where my influences lay. While searching for the scenes, with the most popular ones I would come across dozens of alternate versions in a creative online explosion, similar to the demographic portrayed by the ʽspawn’ of Kneecam No.1.
I don’t just mean ‘re-edits’ as in, a fan’s favourite bits of the movie put together as a tribute or slideshow. I mean where they’ve used the original as an artistic prompt, and changed the implied genre, or storyline, as a transformative work. Look up the political-thrillerised version of ‘Splash’. That’s really creative, and the great thing about Youtube is everyone can share and appreciate a different slant on what Hollywood does.
And completely reinvented mash-ups, taking an existing concept and changing the context, like the re-imagined works initiated by Subrealic, aka Matthias Fritsch. One example is Youtube uploader Ryan (user name: nigahiga), known for a spoof of the social media game Candy Crush Saga by re-inventing it and shooting it as a Hollywood movie trailer.
It has been done in books already – most notably with ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ by P.D. James, and ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ by Seth Grahame-Smith.
Two different interpretations of the same Jane Austen romance. James took the original characters from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ but not the original book or prose, and penned a murder mystery in place of a happy ever after – but her imitation of Austen’s style is spot on, so it is the genre which has changed, but not the voice as such.
Grahame-Smith took the original text – legally, as it is in the ‘public domain’ meaning out of copyright worldwide (literary copyright expires in most countries at the wonderful-sounding date of ‘death [of the author] + 70 years’ or in a few cases ‘death [author] + 100 years’) – and added butt-kicking martial artist zombie-killer action to it.
If you plan to do similar, as in either of these examples, make sure the original content you are planning on mashing up is in the ‘public domain’ (as defined by the time-spans above). Public domain does NOT mean ‘the characters have been discussed in the Daily Mail’ or that they have fan pages on Facebook, or profiles on Wiki. One thing I was asked about by a cover artist – no, images on WikiCommons are not ‘public domain’ – they are provided for contextual use only.
Be wary of falling into the trap of assuming ALL books who fulfil the ‘date of death of the author’ are in public domain. Estates are often set up for prolific or famous authors – for example, the late British author Arthur Ransome.
Under normal circumstances, his books would enter public domain status seventy years after his death. However, the existence of an estate to protect his work, and an existing fan-base, means this is unlikely, and copyright may be renewed before it expires. This came as a surprise to at least two authors I have worked with – one who mistakenly assumed you could appropriate anything ‘from any book over seventy years old’ (misinformation about copyright lifespan, see above for definition), and one who thought you could publish new stories about an author’s famous original leading characters and situations so long as the author was dead (post-burial optional). As discussed before, that’s fan-fiction, and can’t be published for financial gain.
You also have to be aware of when a central character is not public domain, while the source story might well be. The fairytale of Sleeping Beauty is ancient and can be re-imagined by anyone. But Maleficent the character, based on the original ‘evil witch’ from the fairytale, as portrayed in all forms by Disney, was created and is owned by Disney. Again, this is similar in context to Stalder’s comment “…he takes or that she has taken from the public – so he/she has to grant the public also the right to take from him/her.”
Genuine Disney merchandise doll in original packaging on the left, with my re-dressed and repainted custom OOAK version on the right, made for myself as a fan of the character. Even more relevant – the doll on the right that I customised was not a genuine Disney original, but a bootleg version manufactured elsewhere and found online. So the Maleficent doll design has been ‘re-mixed’ twice.
It is possible to develop a new, copyrighted product inspired by public domain work. You cannot legally reproduce Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty or Maleficent, or any of their named character designs, and equally neither you or Disney can claim the copyright status of sole use of the original fairytale. But you can write your own version of the original fairytale from scratch, change the title, change the point-of-view, add new characters of your own devising (called O.C.s by fan-fiction writers) and you may copyright your own unique version.
This is where the debate rages over transformative works, especially when they cross back and forth over the transmedia line, from imagery to written word to gaming to product marketing and back again. It happens with cultural appropriation in music and fashion – mutual admiration or artistic appreciation of lifestyle across communities leads to imitation, reworking, a new and temporary ownership of those styles for a period of time, and then transition again.
Domenico Quaranta, Art Critic and Curator, Link Art Center, Italy: “The idea should have the right to evolve, and who did something shouldn’t have the right to value, to judge the following variations of the idea that he contributed to. Because if this contributed in a significant way to the evolution of the story, this contribution itself must be significant.”
Parody, as made by National Lampoon, and the Barry Trotter books etc, is a reworking of a genre, of a recognisable copyrighted current franchise – but with new characters, which may sound and act similar to the originals, and also importantly, with jokes in. Although ‘parody’ is still not recognised in all countries. Some territories consider it copyright infringement where readily identifiable, and deem them not publishable either, as with fan-fiction.
Many books and films, especially fantasy/humour (including Pratchett’s Discworld series) pay homage to earlier works in ways that the reader or viewer can identify with.
For this to work, the parody element – or the tribute, or homage – has to be something that connects broadly with the audience. Kneecam No.1 gave the audience the ʽsuperhero’ identification scene. In generally accepted storytelling, you have a scene with a damsel in distress, an injustice, a battle or a risk to life involved, and a mysterious, larger-than-life stranger swoops in to save the day. After succeeding and re-establishing the status quo, reminding the rest of humankind to look out for one another and what their current priorities are, the superhero vanishes again. He has other places to be and problems to solve. This is the story archetype for that character, and the role that Technoviking immediately fulfilled in the imagination of the audience.
Maxa Zoller, Film Curator, Cairo: “I think it’s a certain male desire to become this CGI, muscular, protective archetype of a man. These guys, when they imitate the viking, film, edit, upload and watch other examples – and that’s also where the fun comes in – there is an affective context that is not just popular culture, that has a certain quality.”
Although these stories and scenarios exist as common archetypes, Hollywood homage and copyright is a fine line. George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino are artists in their own right who have included style reference to their influences in their work. Steven Spielberg too. Hollywood director Chris Columbus used his own Young Sherlock Holmes cast and script as reference for many scenes and characters when directing Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone. My mother recalls watching Young Sherlock Holmes on TV as ‘that old Harry Potter film with the unconvincing Dementors running around in dressing-gowns. The one where Hermione gets shot at the end.’
A line is crossed in film when an entire story and its parallel sequences are seen to be ‘lifted’ from one other recognisable work – you can look up Disturbia/Estate of Alfred Hitchcock vs. Sheldon Abend Trust to research how one such case of two films and the original story was raised.
Any writer automatically owns their own prose. That’s word order on the page. Not title, not idea, not basic plot. If someone is proven to have Ctrl+C-ed and Ctrl+V-ed (copied and pasted) from another author’s non-public-domain work, or reproduced chunks of it verbatim, that is written copyright infringement in a nutshell.
A well-reported case in the last few years involved passages lifted from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, among others, by a hasty crime thriller writer, drunk on the lucrative new publishing contract he had received (Assassin of Secrets by Q.R. Markham, pen-name of Quentin Rowan, 2011). The portions of work that were stolen were quickly spotted in review copies by existing fans of the originals, and shared publicly in online reader forums. The plagiarising author’s book was withdrawn, and thousands of orders and pre-orders had to be refunded.
Titles, and names such as Discworld can be protected by registered trademark. You can go on that journey if you wish – trademarking is not automatic, unlike copyright, and must be applied for. You will have to prove ownership, originality, and that the word, image or phrase is not in common public usage. Look up the following two words together – ‘space’ + ‘marine’ copyright, for a good example of trademarking which has had plenty of online coverage (see Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 v. M.C.A. Hogarth)
It’s rare to see trademark owners attempt to get it enforced retrospectively, but it does happen.
However, unpublished and indie authors occasionally come out with the well-roasted old chestnut: “I’d love for a huge publisher to steal my ideas, because then I would sue them and be rich.”
When is the last time you heard of this happening? I haven’t – yet I have seen several instances over the years of where a case might be made. The only case I saw followed through and resolved, hopefully to mutual satisfaction, was in the case of an indie author’s unique and personally commissioned cover art on the Authonomy website (now defunct), which was clearly imitated on a different book announced for release by the host publishing house. The publisher blamed the individual working for them on cover design, and had not checked their sources or inspiration – even though they owned the promotional website that the design was lifted from.
Major publishers and film companies always have to be prepared for a deluge of copyright claims, and legally, the complainant has to prove the theft, that the opportunity was in hand. If you research JK Rowling and her product distributors regarding individual authors’ attempted copyright cases against her work – there is a whole Wiki page’s worth – you will discover that the claimants have been bankrupted by such efforts, not enriched.
Even if the small fry have afforded their losing legal costs, the big fish may counter-sue subsequently for tarnishing their reputation, or something called ‘lack of good faith action’ requiring substantial damages to be paid to them by the original complainant. Cue small fry bankruptcy…
You may also be in trouble if you use a celebrity as a character in your published work, never mind a private individual, such as the Technoviking case. This comes under ‘appropriating and distributing a person’s image without consent’ – a French traditionally published author fell foul of this recently, using a current Hollywood actress as the person his female leading character was mistaken for and used to her advantage in his story. He had to pay damages to her as his book was found to have defamed the celebrity’s persona, tarnishing her public image (by his character’s behaviour in the story), while further damages for appropriation of her likeness and personality had also been sought. (Scarlet Johansson v. Grégoire Delacourt re. La Première Chose Qu’on Regarde, 2014). A major console gaming designer was subjected to a similar case by another Hollywood star, who claimed that she and her clothing style, including specific visual images and a recognisable corruption of her name ‘confusing to fans’ had been used as a model for an in-game character, without licensing or consent. (Lyndsay Lohan v. Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive re. GTA V, 2014).
Lyndsay Lohan in a selfie-style pose on the left. GTA V in-game character Lacey Jonas mimics on the right.
Alexander Paschke, lawyer for Technoviking: “My client asserts the rights that he is entitled to. And if this includes a claim for compensation – then it is part of that. But again: He is not after money – it would be much easier to make money out of this in other ways – but this is about others not exploiting and commercializing his persona. If you look at it from the other side: If the violator, who is marketing somebody else illegally, if he can even keep the profits coming out of the violation – what kind of understanding of rights would this be?”
In non-fiction, there is the established referencing system for quotes and sources. Even if your own work is a paraphrased version of the source and not quoted directly, a lot of non-fiction requires supporting evidence, not just credit to the originator. Verbatim quotes will still need permission, including for credited song lyrics. Look up the Harvard method of referencing to fill out your bibliography of research to include in the endnotes of your book. (See Dr Raj Persaud plagiarism case).
That’s the bare bones of it. The part I can shed a positive light on today is the genre twist option, accessible to authors. Where, like P.D. James, you take an old public domain tale, and tell it for a different audience. I hear that very kinky things are currently going on in the world of crusty old romances at the minute, never mind murder mysteries and zombies.
By the look of things happening elsewhere in fictional mash-ups and re-inventions, Technoviking got off lightly. The audience in general respected him.
Wolfgang Ullrich, Professor of Art History & Media Philosophy, Karlsruhe: “If one wanted to speak very traditionally and philosophically, one could see a phenomenon such as the Technoviking as a nice piece of evidence for a thought that was first prominently formulated by Immanuel Kant in his book ʽCritique of Judgment’ in the year 1790, where he asks himself the question: “How does one recognize a work of art?” – and he explicitly means a great work of art, the work of a genius. And the criterion for him, which is actually the only criterion for him, is the reception, the effect of this work. For him it’s clear: The work is a work of a genius if there are copycats, if there are a lot of copycats, if it has something compelling that other humans can’t resist its effect. This would be an indicator of the original’s power, that created new rules and established new forms, and for Kant this would be the proof for a really great art work in the case of the original video of Technoviking.”
Supposing as a writer, for example, you became such ʽa copycat’ and took the genius of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, re-writing him in the style of Bridget Jones’ Diary or Are You there, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Or Frankenstein in the style of a CSI police procedural, analysing all of the body parts going missing. I’d like to see Kathy Reichs do that one… It was done fantastically with Johnny Depp as a police forensics expert in ‘Sleepy Hollow’ – so it’s not an entirely new concept (just look at the action-style on show in the last Sherlock-based TV and movie releases, which are frequently re-invented for new audiences), but potentially there are many forms of almost-unexploited literary mash-up yet to reach the mainstream bookshelves.
You just need to find your genius to emulate – that’s unless you manage to become one, in your own right.
Matthias gives the impression that he still hopes to share an open dialogue one day with the reluctant star of his early film project.
“There is not only ʽmy intellectual property’ but also his, the work of the DJs, the people who made the music, the background dancers – they also were part of the creation – and therefore I don’t see myself as the only originator that owns everything.”
However, if you’re an author investing your time in words on the page, you’ll have to run to catch up with the creativity of online users making re-cut trailers and their own tribute videos on Youtube. That’s if the man formerly known as Technoviking doesn’t get to them first.
The documentary by Matthias Fritsch is released today on http://technoviking.tv/film – it’s free to watch, and compulsory viewing for anyone interested in the future of artistic interpretation, image rights, copyright, global cultural appropriation, viral marketing, and the individual right to privacy and maintaining the personal context of one’s own life, given today’s open social media culture. It’s a fascinating case study, showing how the phenomenon grew chronologically and in its exponential aspects, in which Matthias, the originator, had no promotional role.
Felix Stalder: “Transformative uses – using something to make something new out of it… In a way this is covered theoretically by fair use in the US. But the way fair use has been interpreted in the court, it is very very narrow.”
Thanks to Matthias Fritsch of technoviking.tv for permission to quote from interviews in ʽThe Technoviking Story’ and to share the documentary