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It’s a Wonderful Life

The following is a guest post by Samantha Kosarzycki, legal intern, Office of Public Information and Education.

It just wouldn’t feel like the holidays in our house without the annual showing of It’s a Wonderful Life, Holiday Inn, Scrooged, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Out of all the heartwarming holiday classics, I always considered It’s a Wonderful Life one of the best. I was surprised to learn that the film’s success was in fact a recent phenomenon.

In 1943, when Philip Van Doren Stern was unable to find a publisher for his 4,100-word short story “The Greatest Gift,” It's a Wonderful Lifehe could not have guessed that it would lead to one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time – It’s a Wonderful Life. The popularity of this beloved holiday classic is made even more surprising by its poor performance at the box office upon release, resulting in a loss of $525,000 for RKO Radio Pictures. Some say the success of this film came, in no small part, from a 1974 filing error with the U.S. Copyright Office.  As the story goes, because of a mere clerical error, then-copyright owner Republic Pictures missed filling a renewal application on time, causing the film to lapse into the public domain and onto home television sets.

But the story of this film and the Copyright Office began in 1945, when Stern registered his privately published story “The Greatest Gift.” Appropriately, perhaps, it was a Christmas card that led to the story’s success. After his unsuccessful search for a publisher, Stern decided to send his story out as small booklets to 200 friends in December of 1943. The story came to the attention of producer David Hempstead, and RKO purchased the motion-picture rights to the story for $10,000. The film was ultimately the first release of independent production company Liberty Films. Unable to recoup their high production cost of $2.3 million, however, Liberty Films was bought by Paramount Pictures in 1947. With this sale, Paramount acquired the interest in It’s a Wonderful Life. After a number of subsequent sales, Republic Pictures ultimately took over 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. The film lapsed into the public domain, meaning anyone could show the film without obtaining permission or paying royalties. As a result, the film was repeatedly shown throughout the holidays on public television, and was made widely available on tape. Over the next 20 years, Stern’s story and James Stewart’s starring role, would finally gain its “holiday classic” status.

But the copyright-saga continued in 1993. While Republic Pictures had failed to renew copyright over the film in 1974, they still retained rights to the original story, “The Greatest Gift,” and also purchased rights to the film’s music. Relying on the recent Supreme Court case Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990), Republic Pictures notified all television networks to stop playing It’s a Wonderful Life without the payment of royalties. Republic Pictures then entered into an exclusive licensing arrangement with NBC, where It’s a Wonderful Life can be seen twice a year.

Over 70 years after its premier, I am glad this holiday classic was not forgotten, and my family and I look forward to carrying on our holiday tradition.

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