The Technoviking is back in the news. The muscular man with the pigtail and the Thor's hammer pendant, who thrilled the world seven years ago when he showed up in a short candid video, dancing in the street, is now suing the video's maker. The man – whose real name, strangely, no one seems to know – is claiming he should share in the profits that inevitably accrue from a YouTube video that has been watched 16 million times. The artist who shot the video, Matthias Fritsch, is responding to the suit (which has actually been going on for three years), in a Berlin court and has spoken to the German media about it. He is still not releasing the Technoviking's actual name, so as to protect the man's privacy (and presumably not to enrage him any more). What happens in this case will be of interest to those who watch digital rights. It asks one big question: Who has the rights to your image? And another: How to control the Internet?
The story of the Technoviking goes back to 2000, a time when the streets of Berlin looked and felt a little different. The annual Love Parade, a city-wide festival of pounding techno, was at its zenith. Tourists came from all over the world to witness its frenzy. But already the Berlin underground was sick of the Love Parade's popularity and its perceived commercialism. They created an alternative parade with an impolite name, and marched to even harder and darker music through the grey streets of the bohemian districts.
A young video artist (Fritsch) is taping dancers as they follow a float near Rosenthaler Strasse. His camera is focused on a guy of startling appearance: a body-builder, obviously, with abs like a rack of steel tubes. The guy is shirtless and has some kind of military holster, perhaps for a hunting knife, strapped to his shorts. He looks very much like Thor in an action cartoon.
The rest you have seen: a careless guy bumps into a woman, the Norse god disciplines him. After the wrongdoer disappears from the screen, Thor raises a finger in warning, all his muscles pumped, standing like a statue of Vengeance. It is this movie-like image that has been most widely reproduced as a still.
Then, when the threat is cleared, the Technoviking begins to dance – a powerful, stomping dance – and the procession continues. Acolytes hand him bottles of water, which he receives with the stern tolerance of someone used to acolytes. He is a hero. We all want to be him: the Technoviking is not only a caricature of the protective warrior, but also an uninhibited hedonist. He is Odin and Dionysus at once.
Fritsch posted the clip on his own site, where it went unnoticed for six years. He put it on YouTube in 2006 and it got picked up by porn and humour sites (including the influential 4chan). After four million views, YouTube started sending Fritsch cheques – his royalty from advertising. He has continued to make an artistic name for himself by collecting and exhibiting examples of the Technoviking meme in all its iterations.
So, of course, has everyone else: in addition to the action figures and T-shirts ("Technoviking gives you permission to dance!"), there is a painting, by one Jeremiah Palecek, of the dancer in his heroic pose, that is almost as well circulated as the original video.
It's a mystery of the Internet age that someone as prominent as the Technoviking could have kept his name and history a secret for so long; it could only have happened with the collusion of his adversary, Fritsch. But it's appropriate that the man has no name, as he is more god than man, more myth than person. It's also a mystery how exactly the Technoviking wants Fritsch to erase all traces of the video from the Internet. The irony of the lawsuit is that it is bringing new attention to a meme that was already dead. This is known as the Streisand effect, after an incident involving a paparazzi photo of the singer's house: a protest about control of an image paradoxically publicizes the image even more. It is unfair that the Technoviking made no money from his fame, but it's too late to undo: his image has now passed into mythology, and so belongs to all of us.