The Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft (Voluntary Self-Regulation of the Film Industry, FSK) has a film classification system under which films are classified into any one of the following categories:
- Ohne Altersbeschränkung (FSK 0): no age restrictions (white)
- Freigegeben ab 6 Jahren (FSK 6): children 6 or older admitted (yellow)
- Freigegeben ab 12 Jahren (FSK 12): children 12 or older admitted, children between 6 and 11 only when accompanied by parent or a legal guardian (green)
- Freigegeben ab 16 Jahren (FSK 16): children 16 or older admitted, nobody under this age admitted (blue)
- Keine Jugendfreigabe (FSK 18): "no youth admitted", adults only. This rating was previously called "Nicht freigegeben unter 18 Jahren." (red)
- Infoprogramm or Lehrprogramm: "educational programming". This rating is not issued by the FSK, but may be self-applied to films seeking to educate their audience (e.g. documentaries, instructional films, etc.), provided they do not contain any material "evidently harmful to the development of children and youths". Films with this rating may be sold without any age restriction.
All the above ratings also contain the phrase "gemäß §14 JuSchG" (in accordance with §14 of the Youth Protection Law), signifying that they are legally binding, rather than being mere recommendations. The FSK rating also limits the time of the day in which the movie may be aired on free-to-air TV stations to a time frame between 20:00 (FSK 12), 22:00 (FSK 16) or 23:00 (FSK 18) and 6:00. Stations can ask the Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle Fernsehen (Voluntary Self-Regulation Television, FSF) for a different rating, but are usually required to cut the film.
If the FSK refuses to rate a video release of a film, it can be rated by the Juristenkommision (Commission of Lawyers, JK) of the Spitzenorganisation der Filmwirtschaft (Head Organisation of the Film Industry, SPIO). A SPIO/JK certificate attests that, in the eyes of the JK, a particular film does not violate German law, such as the ban on "glorification of violence". However, films with such a certificate may still be banned (beschlagnahmt) and are frequently put on the lists of the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien, better known as the Index. A movie on the Index cannot be advertised and may only be sold on request by person aged 18 or older. Additionally, indexed movies may not air on TV. The SPIO/JK certificate simply protects the producer/seller of a film that later gets indexed from prosecution, as he or she can claim that they had reason to believe the film did not, in fact, violate any laws. There are two types of SPIO/JK ratings:
- SPIO/JK: keine schwere Jugendgefährdung: Unless on the Index, this rating is identical to FSK 18. However, films with this label are likely to be added to the Index. Because FSK 18 rules for video releases are stricter, some video releases with this rating were previously shown in cinemas with an FSK 18 rating.
- SPIO/JK: strafrechtlich unbedenklich: Films with this label are like indexed ones, but generally more likely to get banned.
Furthermore, while a rating by the FSK is not legally required for a film to be sold, "unrated" films may be sold only to adults, and since most retail chains and virtually all cinemas will sell/show only films with an FSK rating, all films are normally submitted to the FSK for classification, with the exception of films that will most likely be refused a certificate (pornography or films containing extremely strong violence, for example).
After a title has received a rating for a cinematic release, the FSK must approve this rating again for a home entertainment release. Some titles therefore have different FSK certificates for the cinematic release and for the DVD release. Usually, the FSK applies stricter rules to the home releases and therefore sometimes the distributors have to release a tamed down version.
After 10 years, films may be resubmitted to the FSK for re-rating. Older films which have gained a FSK 18 certificate during the '50s or '60s often gain a much lower certificate now (i:e FSK 6 or FSK 12), due to a more liberal approach the FSK now takes in issuing ratings. However, due to the cost involved in resubmitting a film, it is common practice to keep the old certificate for the cinematic release and only submit bonus materials or extended scenes for classification. This leads to the seemingly paradoxical result of extended, and more violent versions of previously rated films gaining a lower certificate than the original version.
Further to the above restrictions, it is also illegal to supply a film with an FSK 18, Keine Jugendfreigabe or SPIO/JK certificate, including those not on the index, without definitive means to supply proof of age. This severely limits distribution of films with these certificates, and thus it is extremely common for distributors to supply a cut version with a lower certificate so that the film can be distributed by mail order or Internet. Almost all major online distributors have declined to distribute FSK 18 or Keine Jugendfreigabe films due to the legal difficulties in the past. Shopping centers, malls have been selling films with this certificate since 2002. Amazon Germany started selling titles with this certification in November 2006. Many smaller online retailers provide an FSK 18 section which may be accessed only by sending a scanned copy of the buyer's identification card or providing the ID card's number (which includes the date of birth encoded). The legality of this practice, however, is as yet untested. In September 2006, Amazon.de became the first major retailer to provide FSK 18 rated films, by making use of an ID checking service offered by the German postal service.
Before 2003, state prosecutors were able to confiscate FSK18 titles to put them on the index or ban them completely from distribution. Thus, many sellers were put off from selling these titles in the first place and instead sold the cut versions that usually carried the FSK16-tag. Under the new law of 2003, however, movies with an FSK18 certificate can no longer be confiscated or put on the index. The FSK may refuse to give an FSK18-tag because it deems the material too violent and/or sexually charged to even grant it an FSK-18 certificate. The distributor may then resubmit a cut version or refer it to the Juristenkommission for a certificate attesting that the film does not violate applicable law. Or distribute it completely unrated, which is equally limited as distributing a film listed on the "Index" – sublist A.