What better thing to do on Christmas Eve than take a look at how copyright, or rather the absence of it, has helped shaped a holiday tradition. I'm speaking, of course, of It's a Wonderful Life.
In the mid-1970s, the movie was believed to have fallen into the public domain. Under the 1909 Copyright Act, a work's copyright term could be renewed once after the first 28 year term expired. The copyright on the box office flop It's a Wonderful Life wasn't renewed. (The flopping might have had something to do with the film opening 13 days after Christmas.) PBS stations started airing the movie regularly at the holidays. Soon other stations followed suit. Roger Ebert describes this quasi-public domain period as the best thing that ever happened to the film. Technically, only the film was in the public domain, not the underlying story. (Some argue that the movie never really was in the public domain because copyright still existed on the underlying script of which the movie was a derivative work.) Television stations took advantage of the lower royalty rates, having only to pay acting as though the movie were in the public domain propelled the film into Christmas-stardom.
Television stations' ability to play the film with less remuneration than other films gave them an easy and cheap way to fill their programming slots with a nice wholesome Christmas-related show. Since it was so cheap and easy to show, every channel could show it and show it often. The film became a staple of the holiday season. Even other Christmas films now incorporate it's importance. In the Home Alone movies, each movie shows the Kevin-less family watching It's a Wonderful Life in a different foreign language.
Currently, It's a Wonderful Life can only be seen on NBC. The colorized versions have their own copyrights (though they are not shown on tv), and the original gained copyright recognition in the mid-1990s. A court ruled that because the film is a derivative work and many parts of it are still protected by their own copyrights, the film cannot be shown without infringing someone else's rights.
The movie is on in the US tonight at 8pm Eastern on NBC. Or you can watch it here, performed by bunnies.