A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... a box office failure fell into the the public domain, and that eventually lead to its current, massive ubiquity during the holiday season.
Legend has it that the current popularity of the beloved holiday classic "It’s a Wonderful Life" may be due in part to the fact that its copyright lapsed and it fell into the public domain. At the time of its release, although some film critics took notice of it, the movie did poorly at the box office. Its poor performance upon release resulted in a loss to the film company. The film might have been forgotten if not for a 1974 filing error with the U.S. Copyright Office, when the then copyright owner missed filling a renewal application on time, causing the film to lapse into the public domain. Since no royalties or other payments are due on a public domain work, and there is no restriction on its use, TV networks across America started running it over and over during the Christmas holiday season (since it cost them nothing and filled TV airtime). As many millions of viewers were exposed to "It’s a Wonderful Life" repeatedly on their home television sets, those viewers came to appreciate its artistry, and it became the popular classic that we know it to be today.
The film was based on the story "The Greatest Gift" by author Philip Van Doreen Stern who registered his copyright in 1945. RKO Radio Pictures initially purchased the motion-picture rights to the story, but then the film would eventually become the first release of independent production company Liberty Films. Unable to recoup their production costs of over $2 million, Liberty Films was subsequently purchased by Paramount Pictures in 1947. With this sale, Paramount acquired the copyright interest in "It’s a Wonderful Life." After a number of subsequent acquisitions, Republic Pictures acquired the rights to the film. At the time the movie was filmed and released, under the Copyright Act of 1909, U.S. copyright protection lasted 28 years from publication with proper notice or registration, and could be renewed for an additional 28 years by filing a proper renewal registration with the Copyright Office. But in 1974, when 28 years had passed, Republic Pictures failed to file a renewal for the film’s copyright protection which allowed the film to lapse into the public domain.
When the film lapsed into the public domain it meant anyone could show the film without obtaining permission or paying royalties. As a result, the film was repeatedly broadcast on network television throughout the holidays, and over the years the nearly forgotten film, starring Jimmy Stewart, finally became the holiday classic we know and love today.
Wallace Collins is a New York lawyer practicing primarily in the area of entertainment and copyright law. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before attending Fordham Law School. www.wallacecollins.com