Copyright chaos creates Christmas classic - Zacco
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Copyright chaos creates Christmas classic

22 December 2022

While the copyright story about ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is not a new one, it certainly never gets old.

Many of those who know ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ consider it to be firmly on the list Christmas family favourites to watch during the holidays, but this wasn’t always the case.

Released in 1946, the film was not a commercial success, despite it being directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, all considered Hollywood heavyweights in their day. It flopped on release and disappeared into cinema obscurity, which is probably where it would have stayed were it not for an interesting quirk of US copyright law.

In the US, copyrighted works created prior to 1964 were covered by the US Copyright Act of 1909, which automatically granted a copyright of 28 years with the option to actively renew the right for a further 28 years afterwards.

So the story goes, the rights to the film were sold to various parties over the years, eventually forming part of the portfolio of a company called Republic Pictures. In 1974, they decided not to renew the registration for some reason, or they simply forgot, and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ joined the public domain. This meant that the film could be shown, royalty free, on any television channel, and it was, repeatedly, on channels all over the US every holiday season.

Throughout the next 20 years, the film was shown so often that it built up a cult following and became ingrained in the public psyche as one of the quintessential Christmas films. However, the story doesn’t end there because although Republic had failed to renew the copyright on the film, they still retained the rights to the short story that the film was based on, called ‘The Greatest Gift’ as well as having purchased the rights to the film’s music.

In the case Stewart v Abend in 1990, the US Supreme Court established that the renewal clause could be considered an opportunity for copyright contracts to be reassessed based on their market value including, for example, their level of popularity, which may have changed since their initial release. Following the ruling, since Republic still owned the copyright to the original story, and now its music, they argued that only they could decide who could show the film in its original form. This basically meant that TV stations had to withdraw it from their schedules.

Republic claimed that the move was necessary in order to preserve the film’s integrity but it effectively put it into a legislative grey area. While the film itself is still technically in the public domain, the story and music are not, which means that the film can’t be shown in public in its current form without first obtaining Republic’s permission, which has been consistently denied. Republic has since granted NBC the rights to show the film, and they do so a few times per year, but long gone are the days of seeing it all over multiple channels every Christmas.

So, while the story shows that it may be possible to achieve global fame by letting your trademarks, designs or copyrights lapse, it is certainly a risky strategy and not one that we would recommend.

If you have any questions about how to develop, protect and maintain your IP rights then we’re here to help. For more information, reach out to Malin Thunberg McCann (Sweden), Nils Köster (Germany) or Iram Zaidi (UK).

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