Why Wonderful Life Comes but Once a Year

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 21 1999 10:37 PM

Why Wonderful Life Comes but Once a Year

It's a Wonderful Life aired on television last weekend—one of its only 1999 broadcasts. Just a few years ago, the movie seemed to be shown on a different channel almost every day throughout the Christmas season. What changed?

U.S. copyright law determines who may distribute, display, or reproduce a film, a book, a drawing—essentially anything "fixed in a permanent medium," as the lawyers like to say. Works not covered by copyrights--including ones with copyrights that have expired and those that never secured this protection—are said to be in the "public domain." These works, like the near-ancient Sherlock Holmes stories and some of Charlie Chaplin's silent films, can be reproduced, broadcast, and sold freely.

Advertisement

It's a Wonderful Life entered the public domain by accident. In 1946, when the movie was filmed, U.S. copyright protection lasted 28 years and could be renewed for another 28 years by filing some paperwork and paying a nominal fee. However, Republic Pictures, the original copyright owner and producer of Wonderful Life, neglected to renew the 1946 copyright in 1974. So, the film entered the public domain. Though a box office flop on release, it became immensely popular on television thanks to repeated showings: Stations programmed it heavily during the holidays, paying no royalties to its producers, and more than 100 distributors sold the movie on tape.

Republic regained control of the lucrative property in 1993 by flexing a new Supreme Court ruling that determined that the holder of a copyright to a story from which a movie was made had certain property rights over the movie itself. Since Republic still owned the copyrighted story behind It's a Wonderful Life and had also purchased exclusive rights to the movie's copyrighted music, it was able to essentially yank the movie out of the public domain: It claimed that since Wonderful Life relied on these copyrighted works, the film could no longer be shown without the studio's blessing. (Technically, the film itself is not copyrighted. One could hypothetically replace the music, rearrange the footage, and sell or show the new product--but no one has done this.) In 1994, Republic * signed a "long-term" deal granting NBC exclusive rights to broadcast the movie, and the network typically does so between one and three times a year.

Wonderful Life won't re-enter the public domain for quite a while. Congress has repeatedly expanded copyright protections and made them effective retroactively. Most recently, at the behest of Disney and other large media corporations with soon-to-expire copyrights, Congress added 20 years to all existing copyright claims. They now stand at 95 years for copyrights held by corporations. (The copyright protection for individual writers and artists lasts 70 years beyond their deaths.) Thus, showings of Wonderful Life will remain limited well into the 21st century.

* In 1998 Republic's parent company, Spelling Entertainment (a subsidiary of Viacom), sold the rights to Republic's film library to Artisan Entertainment.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.