It was a Wonderful Life before public domain changed

The story of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life is a heartwarming one that can’t be repeated, “thanks” to changes enacted in copyright law not long after its surge in popularity.

You’ve probably heard the story: The film was a disappointment at the box office in 1946, and its copyright under the old law was allowed to expire 28 years later, in 1974. (It could have been renewed for another 28 years, but never was.) That allowed the film to enter the public domain.

Cash-strapped local TV stations didn’t have to track down the property owner and pay royalties in order to share it with their viewers, and as a result of those broadcasts, a lot of people started to love the movie. By the time I first saw it — on a public television station Christmas Eve 1984 — it was considered a Christmas classic.

That’s the power of the public domain: After the creator has had a reasonable time (28 or 56 years) to earn money for a work, it is assumed to belong to no one, and anyone may attempt to share it with a larger audience. In this case, a new generation discovered something the previous generation had overlooked or shunned for whatever reason.

The possibility of repeating the miracle with other unrecognized treasures changed in 1976, thanks no doubt to the owners of those rare copyrights for work that still endured after nearly six decades, like Mickey Mouse cartoons and Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan adventures. I understand their desire to protect their investments to a certain extent, but imagine a world where you could now publish a new edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, write a sequel to Catch-22, or write a book that includes the complete lyrics to “She Loves You” without getting permission or a paying a fee to the people who have already made millions from those creations.

My concern is for the lost treasures, the works that underperformed 56 years ago and more but deserve to find an audience — the It’s A Wonderful Lifes of 1965. Those works will now remain lost until 50 years after their creators have passed away, unless someone in the family notices that Aunt Beverly wrote the Great American Novel and by golly, we should share it with the world.

Under public domain, we all would have the right to find Aunt Beverly’s book in a pile at an old book store, understand its brilliance and share it with the public. Aunt Beverly’s heirs may or may not realize what they’re sitting on.

As I’ve been writing this I’ve been starting to sympathize with the Aunt Beverlys of the world, who put all that blood, sweat and tears into a work and didn’t make a dime for 56 years. Then some shmuck comes along and makes a bundle on a new edition. I suppose the changes to copyright law were meant to ensure that she or her heirs at least get a piece of the action, and in a perfect world the publisher would recognize that they deserve some.

The point is, however, that the 1976 law dis-incentivized anyone inclined to find lost treasures, or rather, pushed the search back a few decades to the work of people who have moved beyond the need to be compensated for their efforts.

Part of my little publishing business involves new editions of 100-year-old books like The Haunted Bookshop, Resistance to Civil Government, and Tom Paine’s Letters to the Citizens of the United States. I admit it would be fun to be able to pick from obscure 56-year-old books without fear of legal entanglements, and that’s part of where I’m coming from here.

Mostly I join the 75th anniversary celebration of It’s a Wonderful Life and mourn the loss of opportunity for other work that didn’t succeed the first time around and might benefit from the kind of exposure that the public domain gave to Frank Capra’s masterpiece.

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