Yesterland Waltz, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the Public Domain


Imagine the following. Suppose there’s this guy named Frank. Frank owns an old pickup truck. One day, the old pickup breaks down on Frank. He realizes that since the truck is old and broken down, it’s not worth anything. So he decides to abandon it on the side of the road. The pickup sits there on that spot for years, just rusting away.

Now suppose some other guy — let’s call him Mike — shows up and decides to two the old pickup home. He completely restores it. Rebuilds the engine, replaces the interior, and gives it a fresh paint job. The truck works great!

Now suppose Franks son, Frank Jr., sees the truck all nice and fixed up and shows up at Mike’s house, demanding that Mike give him the keys.

“That’s my father’s truck you’re driving! My father passed away, so it’s mine! Give me the keys!”

Who’s right in this situation? Mike? Or Frank Jr.?

If you’re like 99.9999% of people, the answer is obvious: Mike. Frank Sr. clearly abandoned the truck many years ago. He gave up ownership of it. Frank Jr. has no legal or moral claim to it.

I always viewed movies and TV shows in the public domain the same exact way. Studios and networks abandoned the movies and TV shows they felt were of no value to them. Very much like abandoning an old, broken down pickup on the side of the road.

You with me so far? Keep the analogy of the pickup truck in the back of your mind for a moment as I shift gears.

My absolute favorite movie and arguably the very best movie ever made is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s not enough space in this one blog post to say what It’s a Wonderful Life is or what makes it so great. If you haven’t seen it, you just have to believe me when I say it’s an incredible film.

It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of despondent small town banker whose guardian angel gives his the opportunity to see what the world would be like had he never been born. It’s now a Christmas classic and a staple on network TV every year. But it wasn’t always that way.

For reasons still largely unknown, It’s a Wonderful Life was a box office disappointment. Frank Capra, the director, lost his shirt on the project and was forced to sell his independent movie studio. Now, remember, these are the days long before DVD, Blu-ray, or even VHS players. The studio that bought out Capra saw little value in It’s a Wonderful Life, and, consequently, forgot to renew its copyright in 1974.

It’s a Wonderful Life was all but forgotten. Sitting in a film can in some warehouse, collecting dust.

At around this time, local TV stations were desperate for content — especially the independent stations that had no network to draw from. Licensing content was expensive, so to them, stuff that had fallen into the public domain was a godsend. And this is how It’s a Wonderful Life broke out and became famous — hundreds of local TV stations all over the country discovered it and started running it every Christmas…and audiences fell in love.

It’s a Wonderful Life exploded. It’s greatness was now fully realized. It lifted people up, restored their hope, made them soar. It fast became one of the most popular movies of all time and part of vintage Americana.

But then the movie studios and big TV networks took notice. Once a worthless bunch of celluloid taking up space on a shelf, It’s a Wonderful Life was now a phenomenon. A potential goldmine.

And they wanted it back.

So Republic Pictures and NBC went to court and made a case. They claimed that since the story that inspired it was still copyrighted, It’s a Wonderful Life was, too. Well, as you might guess, the court ruled in their favor, and local TV stations all over the nation had to destroy their copies.

Now I ask you, isn’t this a heck of a lot like Frank Jr. taking Mike to court and getting his father’s abandoned truck back?

What do you think?


9 thoughts on “Yesterland Waltz, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the Public Domain

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Yours is actually a thought-provoking post. I believe it depends on what state you live in. In Florida, for example, a car is considered abandoned if it is left on public property for more than 35 hours. A prospective owner need only contact the police and post a classified ad in a local paper to be eligible to claim ownership.

      This example plays well, I think, to the overarching discussion of the public domain, particularly the public domain laws that applied to movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

      Works copyrighted before 1978 were covered by initial copyright for 28 years. If a work was not renewed during its 28th year, it lapsed into the public domain. Now, I think, a moral argument can be made in the case of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” for, as I understand it, the studio that owned the film did attempt to renew its copyright buy only failed due to a clerical error.

      In my mind there’s a material difference between a work that was just outright abandoned and one that fell through the cracks just due to error.

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