Naperville Business Attorney Discusses a Christmas Classic and Copyright Protection

copyright, Naperville business law attorneyThe winter holiday season is filled with a variety of customs and traditions. Some of them are similar from one family to the next while others may be quite different. In many households, certain holiday films are held in particularly high regard and can be watched and re-watched a number of times each year. One of the most popular Christmas movies of all time, however, may not have become so loved if it had not been for a fateful lapse in copyright protection more than 40 years ago.

As a business law attorney, it is fascinating to realize how seemingly small details can have such an impact on the world as we know it. Today, copyright and intellectual property protections have created a complex web of rules and regulations, but thanks to a decision in the 1970s, most of us know that “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

Humble Beginnings

Between 1974 and 1993, one could hardly turn on the television during the Christmas season without stumbling across an airing of It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s adaptation of a Philip Van Doren Stern short story told the tale of a depressed small-town banker who hits bottom on Christmas Eve. As James Stewart’s George Bailey considers suicide, his guardian angel shows him how his life has had a positive impact on his family, friends, and even strangers.

The film was originally released in 1946 and was not a box-office hit. In fact, the movie failed to break even.

A Money-Saving Opportunity

Copyright laws at the time granted an initial period of protection lasting 28 years, which could be extended for an additional 28 years. All a studio needed to do was pay a nominal fee and file the appropriate paperwork. When the initial copyright expired for It’s a Wonderful Life in 1974, Republic Pictures—the studio that owned the rights—did not bother to renew the protections, and the film entered the public domain.

Beginning that same year, television networks took advantage of the situation. Because the movie was in the public domain, networks could air it without paying licensing fees or royalties. With near-constant exposure, the film quickly became a holiday tradition for many families.

New Protections

As cable television expanded throughout the 1980s, It’s a Wonderful Life could be found playing almost any time of the day or night during the winter holiday season. In 1990, however, a United States Supreme Court decision redefined how adaptation rights could be assigned, renewed, and protected. The ruling allowed Republic Pictures to reclaim the rights to the story on which It’s a Wonderful Life is based. The studio also purchased the exclusive rights to the original music in the film. In 1994, Republic signed a deal that gave NBC exclusive rights to air the movie. While the film technically remains in the public domain, the story and music rights are currently held by Artisan Entertainment, which bought them from Republic in 1998.

In recent years, new copyright laws have been enacted that expanded such protections even further and for longer periods of time. A corporation can now hold a copyright for up to 95 years, and individuals enjoy protections that can last for up to 70 years after their deaths.

Contact Us for Help

If your company creates, publishes, broadcasts, or performs material that may be subject to copyright protection, it is important to know your rights. Contact an experienced Naperville business law attorney for guidance. Call The Gierach Law Firm at 630-756-1160 for a confidential consultation today.



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