Strange story.

After It’s a Wonderful Life accidentally fell out of copyright it became omnipresent on American TV, especially every Christmas. The Greatest Gift, the 4,000 word story on which the film was based was written by Philip Van Doren Stern (1900 – 1984). Finding himself unable to sell it for publication, Stern used it as a Christmas card in 1943. One of the recipients of the Christmas card thought this would be an excellent film vehicle for Cary Grant, bought up the rights for RKO in April 1944 and got Grant on board. The film ended up being made in 1946 by Frank Capra for his new venture, Liberty Films, starring of course James Stewart not Cary Grant. Liberty Films was going bust soon after the picture disapointed at the box office. The company was sold, together with its small film library which was in turn sold to a succession of companies. While one of the sales was under way the paperwork for copyright renewal for It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t get filed. Thus the film fell into the public domain in 1974, which is when it became a “success” being shown again and again (for free) on television. End of story you’d not unreasonably think: there’s no way back to copyright status from being in the public domain. But . . .

There’s copyright in the derivative work, the movie, and there’s copyright in the story on which it was based. In 1990 the Supreme Court had judged that the underlying rights in an original book could supersede the rights to the movie in a case involving Rear Window. The judgement hinged on the failure of the original author to renew copyright — his death had unfortunately gotten in the way of his doing so. It’s a Wonderful Life‘s owner, Republic Pictures Corporation, saw the opportunity to use this judgement to scare off the “copyright infringers” who were showing their movie without paying them anything. They owned the movie but also the copyright to the original story from which it had been developed. Just to be sure, they also bought up the copyright to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. Republic Pictures notified all television networks to stop the playing of It’s a Wonderful Life without payment to them: and none of the networks challenged their claim. One might well believe that Republic’s claim would not stand up in court: after all in this case the critical element of the author’s dying before he could renew copyright was not the case. Networks must have decided that the cost of a suit would be more than the benefit from playing the movie free of charge, so Republic succeeded in rescuing the film from the public domain. Ironically the movie’s success was almost entirely due to its period in the public domain, and Republic Pictures is now able to pick up the benefit.

The video at the top of this piece is 21 minutes long, but is actually very interesting, and well worth watching. Initially I thought John Hess’s way of speaking might drive me crazy, but his precise delivery is actually appropriate to the legal subject matter. The whole thing is fascinating, and a model of clarity. Ink, Bits, & Pixels brought us the story.

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