“It’s a Wonderful Life”, the now famous Christmas classic, opened in 1946 to critical acclaim (it was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture) but dismal box office profits. The story, “The Greatest Gift,” was originally written by Philip Van Doren Stern but Frank Capra is credited with bringing it to life.
At the time the film was created, copyright protection only lasted for 28 years and then an extension could be filed for an additional 28 years. In 1974, the copyright registration lapsed. (It is unclear whether this was due to a filing error or the company’s decision not to renew.) The movie became part of the public domain, making it a popular choice for television stations in need of Christmas programming and greatly increasing its popularity and exposure.
However, the story that the movie is based on remains protected by a copyright owned by Republic. It also purchased the copyright for the movie’s music. Because the movie relies upon the underlying story and the music, they were essentially able to regain control all copyright rights for a film that was technically in the public domain following a favorable Supreme Court ruling from 1990. (In Stewart v. Abend, the court stated that a film based on a copyrighted story was not an instance of non-infringing fair use. One reason provided was that the story comprised a “substantial portion of the film,” including “its unique setting, characters, plot and sequence of events.” It also considered that allowing the film to be re-released would effect on the story’s copyright owner from marketing new versions of the story.) Paramount acquired Republic, the company that owned the copyright to the story, in 1998 through the acquisition of its parent company, Spelling Entertainment, and now claims to control the music, the story and the film version.
Plans for a sequel to this iconic film have recently emerged. The storyline would be based around George Bailey’s grandson. Karolyn Grimes, who played Bailey’s daughter in the original film, is slated to appear as an angel. Hummingbird Productions and Star Partners have announced their plans to begin filming. It seems that Robert Farnsworth, the president of Hummingbird, has been pursuing this project for some time. He registered copyrights for text versions of the sequel in 2004 and 2005. Paramount has been very vocal in its opposition to this film and intent to stop it, citing its ownership of the associated copyrights and the failure of Hummingbird Productions and Star Partners to obtain a license from Paramount.
Whether it is to protect the artistic integrity of Frank Capra and James Stewart or just to stop others from lining their pockets with “It’s a Wonderful Life” profits, it is clear that Paramount will fight anyone that tries to make this proposed sequel a reality.
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