Why does It’s a Wonderful Life now only air twice during the holidays — and only on NBC? Growing up in the 1980s, I saw It’s a Wonderful Life several times each year. It was a staple of hundreds of networks. It was on the Family Channel, on the local independent TV station, and on innumerable other venues.
The great mystery revolves around our nation’s copyright laws, established in the copyright clause of the Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 explains the purpose of the copyright power given to Congress:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
The Copyright Clause recognizes two basic facts. First, there is the concept that many people who have pirated the latest music and movies, as well as those who complain about pharmaceutical companies making big profits off new discoveries, ignore. If you want new music and advances in science, people must be able to make a profit. Because of that, copyrights and patents are necessary.
Second, the clause recognizes that the purpose of copyrights and patents is primarily the advancement of civilization — not an ongoing perpetual grant for the copyright holder. The advance of science demands that a patent lapse so that others are able to incorporate that patented design into their future plans. The same is true of a copyright. When something is written or produced, it is the property of the writer. However, after a time, these intellectual properties become part of common culture. There is no copyright on Shakespeare or the poetry of Walt Whitman. These authors wrote their work, collected their benefits, and moved on.
Which brings us back to the case of It’s a Wonderful Life. When the film was released in 1946, it was given a 28-year copyright term which was eligible for a 28-year renewal. For whatever reason, a request wasn’t put in for renewal, and it was believed to have fallen into the public domain in 1975. Had it not connected with the American people on its rediscovery, it would have become a resident of dollar DVD bins, like other public domain mainstays such as the Fleischer Superman cartoons or Bill Cosby’s TV movie Tell All My Friends on the Shore.
However, the movie studio smelled money. Thus, it fought for a decade until it regained control of the film. The studio argued that while the film’s pictures had entered the public domain, the story which the studios had bought the rights to had not, and therefore the film could not be shown. Thus, this Christmas Eve, NBC will show a 63-year-old movie based on a 70-year-old short story and will pay out handsome royalties to a company that had nothing to do with the release of the film other than buying the company that released it. How exactly does this contribute to the progress of the useful arts?
The first Copyright Act in 1790 set the term of the federal copyright for 14 years, renewable for 14 additional years. Rufus Pollock, an economist at Cambridge, mathematically concluded in 2007 that 14 years was the ideal length of copyright protection. As with most things, though, America has gone the other way with absurd lengths of copyright protection, with ever-lengthening terms.
All of the changes in copyright law have not been negative. Under the 1790 law, Charles Dickens got cheated out of royalties in the United States, as foreign authors weren’t protected. The horror classic Night of the Living Dead became a legal horror story for its creators when its theatrical distributor failed to put a copyright notice on the released print, thus dropping it into the public domain upon its release and depriving the creators of any TV or DVD royalties. New copyright law ensures that won’t happen, as copyright notices aren’t required.
Unfortunately, it also has created some absurd situations. In 1998, with the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, set to enter public domain in 2003 after 75 years of copyright protection, Congress passed a bill extending all renewed copyrights by twenty years and named it after that noted legal scholar Sonny Bono.