The story of how It’s a Wonderful Life is no longer considered to be a public domain film is well known. The only problem is that the most popular and most circulated version of the story is laughably incorrect. Contrary to popular belief, the film’s copyright was not restored thanks to the film containing music that was still copyrighted. It’s time for the interesting story behind the whole It’s a Wonderful Life situation and what actually happened.
Due to its copyright not being renewed in 1974, the film was considered public domain under the laws of the time. However, the film’s score was copyrighted separately and properly renewed. What most people fail to note is how the movie is actually an adaptation of the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern distributed copies as a Christmas gift in 1943 and eventually someone in Hollywood learned of it. They licensed the rights to make a film version and after a few false starts, It’s a Wonderful Life was released by Frank Capra’s Liberty Films in 1946. However, the story was officially published and copyrighted some time after the release of the film. The official definition of what constitutes publication under American copyright law is complicated and much different from what the average person would consider it to be. This is a good place to start, but the Copyright Office goes into more detail in other documents. Given the story having been published in December 1944 and having gotten its copyright granted in 1945, it seems to me that processing was delayed due to the chaos brought on by the Christmas season.
Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Stewart v. Abend in 1990, it was determined that only a copyright owner can allow the creation of derivative works. More importantly, the case directly involved a film adaptation of a short story being considered as a derivative work. Republic Pictures, which owned what had once been the Liberty Films catalog of films and picked up the rights to the music and original short story along the way, realized this could be applied to It’s a Wonderful Life and the rest is history. I have to wonder if the confusion stems from the original reporting of the decision in the media. If enough versions of the story focused on the score in the headline, similar to how most news stories which advertise themselves as being about someone being sued for downloading music but are actually about someone illegally distributing music online, then it would explain all the confusion. I also remember hearing some unverified claims about the rights owners having successfully obtained royalties from select television stations showing the film prior to the decision, so that could also be a factor. But that is only my best guess. The relative obscurity of the case which showed the presence of copyrighted music in McLintock! did not restore copyright to the film itself among the public also helped maintain the error. It should be noted how those utilizing the film without licensing or replacing the score could still find themselves in trouble.
It’s interesting how many people fail to understand what the decision actually means. Some seem to think that once something falls into the public domain, all parts of it are free to use forever. I have even seen people make this argument about music in supposedly public domain despite their repeating the story of music being the reason It’s a Wonderful Life got its copyright status back! But this is not the case and it has far reaching results for all aspects of the film world. White Zombie is often treated as if it is safely in the public domain even though portions of the soundtrack appear to still be copyrighted and the film itself is an adaptation of The Magic Island by William Seabrook. I would like to think this wouldn’t be the case if the book was mentioned in the credits rather than just referencing it in its publicity materials, but I doubt it. Plenty still treat it as a PD movie. I still see people arguing how a rights owner couldn’t possibly sue since a particular film has been treated as being public domain for decades. But It’s a Wonderful Life shows that is not the case. The owners could not turn around and sue those who has treated the work as being PD in the past and stopped (unless they continued to do so after the decision was announced), but could definitely still go after others. Others argue that since the story is copyrighted, then images from the movie are fair game. This attitude is currently on display in the “Talk” section of and usage information sections of images illustrating the Wikipedia article about the film. But if that were true, the same would apply to publicity pictures taken from copyrighted films if the images themselves were not registered. But I think Toho Co., Ltd. v. William Morrow and Co., Inc. seems suggest this is not the case at all. It also raises some interesting issues over just how much “fair use” can cover reviews or commentary. Similarly, what I’ve read about the Video Pipeline, Inc. v. Buena Vista Home Entertainment lawsuit online sure seems to say trailers are derivative works. It would make sense since it seems rather ridiculous for a still or trailer featuring a material taken directly from a film to be considered in the public domain when the film itself is copyrighted. I may not be a lawyer and some of this is made up of my opinions, but at least they are informed opinions.