It's Not Such A Wonderful Public Domain, As Paramount Plans To Block 'It's A Wonderful Life' Sequel
from the shameful dept
If you spend enough time in copyright circles, you know the story of the copyright on the iconic film It’s A Wonderful Life. Due to a filing error in 1974, an attempt to renew the copyright on the film failed, thus putting the film itself into the public domain. This meant that, in the late 1970s and 1980s, the film was shown on various TV networks every holiday time — cementing its reputation. While the film had won a few awards when it was released, it had been a box office flop. It was only the regular showings on TV, thanks to its public domain status, that really gave the film the reputation it has today. Except… the movie itself is based on a short story, called “The Greatest Gift.” That story has remained under copyright. In 1993, the copyright holder of that story at the time suddenly announced that since the film was a derivative work of the story, it remained under copyright as such a derivative work. In 1998, Paramount bought the company that held the copyright, and thus, today it claims that it holds the copyright on the film — though, really only the copyright on the underlying story that the film is based on.
Still, many people recognize (or remember) that the film itself is supposedly in the public domain, and some of them had recently put together a plan to make a sequel, which would even star actress Karolyn Grimes, who played the little girl (“every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!”) in the original film. Except… Paramount has done what Paramount does, and said that no such sequel can be made without a license. So, basically, this film that became so popular because of its public domain status has had that status robbed.
In theory, you can see how a filmmaker could try to tip toe around this issue, by making sure that none of the copyright-covered elements from the original story are then included in the sequel, but it would probably be almost impossible to pull that off in any reasonable way. While I recognize that this is mixing up iconic holiday stories, shame on Paramount for being such a Scrooge, stomping out the public domain and stifling creative endeavors.