The other night, along with many other Americans, I watched the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, the movie has become a Christmas staple — but it was not always that way, and how it attained its holiday status has as much to do with the intricacies of intellectual property law as it does with the storyline and the production values.
When it was released in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life was only a moderate success. The story was unusual for Christmas — built around an attempted suicide by banker George Bailey (Stewart) and the rescue by his guardian angel, Clarence (played by Harry Travers). The movie was nominated for five Oscars, but it didn’t win any, nor did not meet its financial break-even point. By the 1970s, the film was so largely forgotten that its owner (apparently inadvertently) let the copyright protection lapse.
All forms of intellectual property — including films, writings, photographs, and recordings — are protected by law for a certain period of time after they are created. If a radio station wants to play a recording, or a network wants to broadcast a film, the holder of the copyright is entitled to receive a royalty. After an extended period of time — which varies depending upon the medium, but which certainly spans several decades — intellectual property can lose its protection. When a song or movie remains popular and profitable, the copyright holder can extend the copyright, but many movies and songs are permitted to fall into the public domain.
That’s what happened to It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie had not yet become a Christmas classic when, in 1974, its copyright protection was allowed to expire. That meant that television stations could air it over and over without paying full royalties. (There were still some smaller, derivative royalties due on the storyline, but it is not clear that they were always paid.) For a period of time from the mid-1970s into the 1990s, It’s a Wonderful Life seemed to be on several stations, several times each week during the Christmas season. In fact, one episode of the old television series Cheers even dealt with the movie’s frequent airings.
These repeated showings, made possible by the termination of copyright protection, turned It’s a Wonderful Life into the Christmas tradition that it is today. That, in turn, sent people searching for ways to capitalize on the film.
Videotapes of It’s a Wonderful Life were produced by several different manufacturers. Since they did not have to pay full royalties or even get permission to use the images, any VHS producer could bring the popular movie to market, and numerous ones did.
The lack of copyright protection also made It’s A Wonderful Life one of the most notorious subjects of colorization. It was originally produced in black and white, but by the 1980s, computer graphics could add color. The new colorized film could then be copyrighted. It’s a Wonderful Life was released in three different colorized versions. Of course, colorization was an abomination to true movie buffs. I still remember reading the short blurbs in the Chicago Tribune TV section, back when Gene Siskel was the paper’s main critic: Blurbs for the black-and-white version called it a heart-warming Christmas classic; those for the colorized version talked about despondency and attempted suicide.
You may have noticed that, in recent years, It’s a Wonderful Life comes on only once or twice per Christmas season, and only on a major network (NBC). The original copyright holders managed to reassert their rights, something that is virtually unheard of. But the rights associated with the background music, as well as the copyright protection stemming from the short story on which the movie was based, had not yet expired. That gave Republic Pictures the hook in needed to reassert its control of the film. (Apparently, there was some attempt by other groups to avoid paying royalties by running the film without music, but it was disallowed by the courts.)
As a result, one of the great Christmas films of all time is once again protected by the law — ironic, considering that it became a classic in significant part because it was legally unprotected. But God works in mysterious ways — and sometimes the law does, too.
From Mississippi, best wishes for a blessed and merry Christmas.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (2000) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).