George Bailey stands on a bridge begging for another chance at life. Upon being granted a second chance, he joyously runs home to embrace his family. As the community of Bedford Falls rallies around him and raises funds to save the endangered Building and Loan and George Bailey personally from an unjustified failure, someone proclaims a toast to George Bailey, “the richest man in town.” It’s a powerful ending to a beloved holiday classic, and it would have been forgotten over time but for accidentally allowing a copyright to expire.
The 1909 Act is the copyright act that governs copyrightable works created before 1964. The Act created two, distinct copyright terms for each individual work: a 28-year initial term and a 28-year renewal term. The initial term applied automatically, but the copyright owner had to file a renewal application with the U.S. Copyright Office to get the second term. If the owner failed to file a renewal application before the first 28-year term expired, the work automatically entered the public domain.
Into this copyright framework, a movie called It’s a Wonderful Life was released on Christmas day in 1946. It was directed by Frank Capra and starred James Stewart. Upon its release, it was not the booming success that one might imagine based on its reputation now. While it was not a complete box-office failure, it struggled financially and never came close to reaching its break-even point. Capra and Stewart would never work together again. In fact, it was a major blow to Capra’s reputation, and in the aftermath of the film, Capra’s production company went bankrupt.
More holiday movies were created over the years, and the film was largely forgotten. At the end of the initial 28-year copyright term in 1974, a clerical mistake prevented the copyright owner of It’s a Wonderful Life from filing a renewal application, and the movie went into the public domain. TV studios, eager for inexpensive content to show during the holidays, began showing the movie every year because they were not required to pay any royalties while the film was in the public domain. Over the next approximately 20 years, the film was shown repeatedly every holiday and claimed its current status as a holiday classic.
Everything changed in 1993. In response to a Supreme Court ruling in Stewart v. Abend (Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990)), the current copyright owners of It’s a Wonderful Life were able to enforce a copyright claim to the movie. The Court in Steward v. Abend held that a current copyright owner has the exclusive right to exploit derivative works, even in light of potentially conflicting agreements by prior copyright holders. Coincidentally, the Steward v. Abend case involved another James Stewart movie, Rear Window.
Because the current copyright owners of It’s a Wonderful Life still owned the movie rights of the original story on which the movie is based, the current copyright owners argued that their rights to the story told in It’s a Wonderful Life still existed and were enforceable to prevent unauthorized showing of the movie in its current form. The newly-returned owners were thus able to stop any unauthorized showings of the movie, but by then the movie was firmly entrenched as a holiday classic. It has been popular ever since. So the next time you sit down to watch George Bailey offer to lasso the moon for Mary or watch them dancing over an expanding swimming pool, just remember that we all might have missed this movie entirely if not for a clerical mistake causing a renewal application not to be filed.