By any standard, It's a Wonderful Life qualifies as a holiday classic. Frank Capra's 1946 film has earned its place in the pop culture pantheon, becoming a Christmas tradition for millions of viewers around the world.
But it wasn't always that way. In its initial, theatrical release, It's a Wonderful Life was a dud, despite the star power of Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Capra's presence behind the camera. While the film won five Academy Award nominations, it failed to break even at the box office and was quickly forgotten by RKO, the studio that released It's a Wonderful Life.
By the early 1950s, Capra's production--which retained the film's copyright--had been sold to Paramount. But the new studio showed little interest in the director's Christmas tale and over the decades that followed, rights to It's a Wonderful Life passed from Paramount to a series of syndication firms.
Two decades later, control of the film rested with a company called National Telefilm Associates. But a clerical error at NTA prevented the copyright from being properly renewed. And that allowed a movie that had been largely ignored to reach new audiences and secure its standing as a holiday classic.
Writing at InsideCatholic.com, University of Mississippi Law Professor Ronald Rychalk explains how the lapsed copyright actually benefited the film:
The movie had not yet become a Christmas classic when, in 1974, its copyright protection was allowed to expire. That meant that television stations could air it over and over without paying full royalties. (There were still some smaller, derivative royalties due on the storyline, but it is not clear that they were always paid.) For a period of time from the mid-1970s into the 1990s, It's a Wonderful Life seemed to be on several stations, several times each week during the Christmas season. In fact, one episode of the old television series Cheers even dealt with the movie's frequent airings.
These repeated showings, made possible by the termination of copyright protection, turned It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmas tradition that it is today. That, in turn, sent people searching for ways to capitalize on the film.
As a result, there multiple videotape versions of the film--all released by different companies. Various "colorized" versions also appeared, to the consternation of critics and audiences alike.
But renewed interest--and profit potential--in the Capra production also spurred action by the original copyright holders. What followed was something of a miracle, not unlike Clarence the Angel earning his wings in the film.
You may have noticed that, in recent years, It's a Wonderful Life comes on only once or twice per Christmas season, and only on a major network (NBC). [That's because] The original copyright holders managed to reassert their rights, something that is virtually unheard of. But the rights associated with the background music, as well as the copyright protection stemming from the short story on which the movie was based, had not yet expired. That gave Republic Pictures the hook in needed to reassert its control of the film. (Apparently, there was some attempt by other groups to avoid paying royalties by running the film without music, but it was disallowed by the courts.)
As a result, one of the great Christmas films of all time is once again protected by the law -- ironic, considering that it became a classic in significant part because it was legally unprotected. But God works in mysterious ways -- and sometimes the law does, too.
Incidentally, It's a Wonderful Life represented Stewart and Capra's return to Hollywood after World War II, and both the actor and director considered it their favorite film. But while Stewart quickly reestablished himself as a major star, Capra's post-war career lagged, and as Roger Ebert observed, he never recaptured the magic of his 1930s films. His last production was released in 1961, only 15 years after It's a Wonderful Life.