Photo from It's A Wonderful Life

It’s the holiday season, which for many means it is time for their annual viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life. The ionic story was once a mainstay of the holiday season, re-running on television, ad nauseum, from the end of November until the start of the new year. Many would argue that it was the constant onslaught of the movie during the holiday season that turned It’s A Wonderful Life into the Christmas tradition that it has become. In fact, when the movie was first released it was considered a box-office flop; putting director Frank Capra $525,000 in the hole. It didn’t gain its status as a holiday classic until the 1970’s, thanks to a copyright mistake.

The Greatest Gift, A Christmas Copyright Story

This tale begins with a short story, written by Phillip Van Doren Stern. The story, The Greatest Gift, follows a man named George Pratt. Unhappy with his life, George meets a stranger on a bridge on Christmas Eve as he contemplates suicide. He confesses to the stranger that wishes he had never been born. With that, the stranger grants George his wish, and he returns to his home town to see for himself what life would have been like without him in it. With this simple wish George is able to clearly see the impact that he made on those around him. George finally understands that he had taken for granted the greatest gift of all; the gift of life. Distraught, George returns to the bridge and begs the stranger to return things to the way they were.

This Christmas story has a happy ending. George gets his life back and rushes back to everyone he loves, grateful for all he has. The short story itself didn’t have a very illustrious start, however. In fact it is almost a holiday miracle that this movie became a Christmas tradition for so many generations. You know the old saying, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

“The Gift” becomes “It’s A Wonderful Life”

Photo from It's A Wonderful Life

Photo Credit: Liberty Films

It seems hard to believe that this now iconic story didn’t sell. Phillip Van Doren Stern shopped the short story to every publishing house he could find with no interested buyers. Undeterred, he printed 200 copies of the story and sent it to his friends as a 21 page Christmas card. An RKO producer, David Hempstead, ended up with a copy of The Greatest Gift. Just four months after he sent his “cards” out, Van Doren Stern sold his story to RKO Studios for $10,000 (around $124,000 in today’s money.)

In 1945 the screenplay version of The Greatest Gift was sold to Frank Capra’s production company for $10,000 and was adapted into the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. James Stewart took on the role of George Bailey, no longer George Pratt, and Donna Reed debuted as his wife, Mary. The movie cost $3.7 million dollars to make, a tidy sum at the time, and only grossed $3.3 million in its initial run in theaters. It might have been largely forgotten after that, had it not been for a copyright mistake; one that may have helped make it a classic.

The Forgotten Filing

Creative works made prior 1964 fall under the 1909 Act, which creates two distinct copyright terms of 28 years each for any individual work. The initial 28 year term applies automatically, but the second term of 28 years required a renewal application in order to apply for the additional copyright protections. If the owner of a piece failed to renew, the work automatically fell into the public domain.

The movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, was released on Christmas Day, 1946. In 1974 a clerical error prevented the copyright owner from filing the necessary extension application. The movie went into the public domain. This allowed any television network to show the movie without having to pay costly royalties. And play it they did, the film was shown repeatedly every holiday season for almost 20 years; solidifying the movie as a Christmas classic.

Jimmy Stewart Strikes Again

It's A Wonderful Life Copyright

Photo credit IMDB

In 1993, coincidentally, it was another Jimmy Stewart film that helped to yank It’s A Wonderful Life out of the public domain and back under copyright protection.  It was the case, Stewart v. Abend that brought the matter before the Supreme Court. This ruled that derivative works, based on a copyrighted piece, are covered by the copyright protections of the original piece. In the case of It’s A Wonderful Life, Republic Pictures, the owners of the copyright to The Greatest Gift (and the copyright to the movie’s music rights) could now reclaim control of the film. In a nutshell, while the film itself may be in the public domain, the music and the story are not.

Republic Pictures could now enforce their ownership of the holiday classic. In 1993 they began to send out letters to television and cable networks and anyone else who may want to show the film, notifying them of Republic Pictures intent to enforce their copyright. In 1994 they granted NBC long-term, exlusive rights to broadcast the film, thus ending its omnipresence on the holiday airwaves.

A Copyrighted Christmas Irony

Ironically it seem that it was its 20 years in the public domain that helped to vault It’s A Wonderful Life into its place as a holiday tradition. So many people grew up watching Jimmy Stewart lasso the moon for Donna Reed that the Christmas season wouldn’t be the same without it. For this self-professed, copyright geek the story behind the movie is almost as compelling as the movie itself. From the original copyright lapse to the (perish the thought) proposed sequel floated in 2013, the story behind It’s A Wonderful Life is a Christmas gift that only an IP attorney would love.

You know what they say though, every time a bell rings a copyright attorney gets his wings. At least that’s how I remember the story. Either way, we can agree that the ending is a happy one. From the Zachary Hiller Law team, wishing you a happy holiday season and a very prosperous New Year.



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