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.

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Companies: paramount pictures, viacom

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Comments on “It's Not Such A Wonderful Public Domain, As Paramount Plans To Block 'It's A Wonderful Life' Sequel”

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Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

I’m a bit conflicted on this.

On the one hand, just on general principle I’d like to see the EFF take this on and smack Paramount down. On the other hand… just look at what movie adaptations of old favorites are like these days. I’m not sure I want to see Clarence walking around dressed in black and smiting people who make trouble in the world. So maybe this is actually a good thing? 😛

cpt kangarooski says:

Re: Re:

So just ignore them. Same as you would if you didn’t like a particular adaptation or performance of Shakespeare or Dickens or something.

That’s an advantage of works being in the public domain. Even if you hate the authorized film of a book, the lack of exclusivity and licensing costs allows more alternative adaptations to appear. (Provided that someone cares to make them) And even if none of those float your boat, you can always make your own.

I don’t like the Star Wars prequels, but if Star Wars fell out of copyright, I bet that someone else would make better ones, with better stories and better characters. Just because Lucas would not be involved with the unauthorized prequels wouldn’t make them worse. The story matters, not the imprimatur.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yet another where I fail to see the downside!

No it doesn’t. Copyright lengths increase crap because only one company is allowed to do remakes and sequels of certain works, meaning other interpretations are killed while the original company can just pump out a nothing special remake for some cash knowing there’s no competition

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Yet another where I fail to see the downside!

Where the fuck does it say anything about the quality of a work in the copyright clause in the US Constitution?
Nowhere, you turd. Copyright was never meant to be used as a tool to stop the production of derivative works simply because they would be perceived by some to be crap.
Still, at least you admit just how and why you love copyright. It filters out (censors) the stuff you don’t like.

MrWilson says:

Re: Yet another where I fail to see the downside!

“Do we need a crappy remake of ancient schmaltz? No.”

Who are you to tell the free market what it “needs?” If Paramount could make a $100m sequel to the movie and make a profit off of it, you would otherwise argue that it was their right to do so. But your subjective tastes get in the way of your previously-stated ideals and suddenly you’ll flip and argue against the rights of copyright holders to make money.

Every time OOTB reveals his hypocrisy in an absurdly obvious manner, a responding commenter gets a funny or insightful vote.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yet another where I fail to see the downside!

Do we need a crappy remake of ancient schmaltz?

Yes, absolutely. Copyright is all about increasing the quantity of works; not the quality, as that’s a subjective matter that the government isn’t competent to judge.

“stifling creative endeavors”? — Yeah, okay, Mike. At long last, a sort of positive statement of your views: Mike believes new versions of old schmaltz is “creative”.

And he’s right. For example, Shakespeare wrote a new version of Romeo and Juliet, but the story was “old schmaltz” by his day. And it’s one of the greatest works of literature in the English language. The story isn’t his creation, but the execution of it is, and it’s very good, very creative.

So I guess Mike would be right.

You, OTOH, are a moron who doesn’t put together one thought before posting some blather that is always directly contrary to whatever the article was about. Mike could write an article saying that the Earth is round, and you’d proudly prattle on about how flat it is.

RyanNerd (profile) says:

Paramount is still staffed with Copyright Idiots

Back in the stone age of the Internet when everyone wondered what the hell HTTP:// was for (you know around 1993 or so). I created a fan site for StarTrek. It was a simple web page where people could leave comments, post pictures and discuss what we all liked about the show and movies.
Within a few months I recieved a nastygram in my mail from Paramount basically saying that if I didn’t take my site down they would sick their lawyers on me.
Seeing as how I had no money (I was starving student at the time and made the site to play with the new web thingy technology.) I put notice on the website word for word of the nastygram and shut the site down about one week later.
It sure didn’t make any friends for Paramount.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

That is an interesting theory, and implies that the copyright of all derivative works remain with the original works author(s). Could make an interesting case against Paramount, as they claim copyright derivative that films they make, and that it belongs to a original works author.

cosmicrat says:

They could still license it.

Although I’m no fan of copyright maximalism and especially stealing something from the public domain through lawyering shenanigans, I have to point out this is not preventing a sequel from being made. It sounds like Paramount isn’t against a sequel being made, they it’s want (probably a very large) piece of the buy. Licensing and acquiring IP rights is a standard part of making any movie.

Now whether a sequel *should* be made, that’s a different question.

Anonymous Coward says:

shame on Congress for not making the public domain how it was intended to be and ensuring that it was protected fully from companies and industries like Paramount, who are only interested in stifling as much as possible whatever they can so as to continue milking something that they are scared will allow another person or company to get some money from while giving pleasure to a lot more people!

Congress, the way you have NOT done your job so many times over so many things, i find it hard to understand what the hell is the point of having you? then i remembered that you have to do as much as you can, for fees of course, to ensure certain industries continue to screw the people as much as possible. sorry for that oversight!!

Anonymous Coward says:

While movie remakes and sequels can be blocked by the copyright owner, music “remakes” cannot.

Songwriters have no legal way to prevent someone they don’t like from singing their songs. This allows record labels to fire and replace band members (sometimes all of them) and then have the replacement crew go on tour playing the same songs as before — hoping fans won’t notice the new faces, or notice that the original members might be out touring under a new name that no one has heard before.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

illustrates my overarching point precisely:

to wit: WE THE PEOPLE make things popular by our acceptance and enjoyment of it; it becomes OURS (YOU gave it to us!)…

things like this movie (which i didn’t know was not popular when it came out) got a second life BECAUSE of its widespread exposure, BECAUSE of US, not THEM ! ! !

same with viral hits and such like ‘gangnam style’: NOBODY on earth would have heard it or responded to it or given it a snowballs chance in hell of making ‘serious’ money, IF IT WASN’T FOR US, not THEM ! ! !

the nike swooshtika isn’t popular because nike did such a mind-shattering job of designing the ultimate logo; no, it is popular because WE MADE IT POPULAR…
there is ZERO inherent value in the swooshtika, it is ONLY our interest and popularization that make it ‘valuable’…

kmart’s vietnamese-made sneakers may have a logo that -objectively speaking- is ten times the masterpiece that the swooshtika is, but we don’t see people buying shirts and crap with that ‘prettier’ logo splashed all over everything, BECAUSE WE HAVE NOT MADE THEM POPULAR…
(even though there may be 10 pairs of kmart sneakers sold for every over-priced piece of nike crap…)

WE make or break the popularity of EVERYTHING, THEN we are punished for our efforts by the TECHNICAL ‘owners’ of it, but NOT the ‘REAL OWNERS’ of that tiny piece of culture, US, ALL of us collectively…

without US making buying/use decisions, disney, nike, starbucks, cox cable, etc, etc, etc, aren’t worth shit…

we literally own them, but without owning them…

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