Why you can’t watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on demand

Over the weekend, a friend of mine mentioned how annoyed she was to find that despite the arrival of the holiday season, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was nowhere to be found among the movies available on demand from her cable company or Netflix. She wanted to show the movie to her husband, who has never seen it.

Readers of a certain age will recall that back in the 1970s and 1980s, you couldn’t avoid “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV at this time of year. Since 1994, though, the Jimmy Stewart classic has been exclusively shown on – er, a network that isn’t CBS or Fox.

Don’t blame Mr. Potter – the culprit is copyright law. In 1974, Republic Pictures failed to renew its copyright on the movie, so it entered the public domain. That meant stations could broadcast it for free, and they did so with abandon.

That endless yuletide exposure helped transform “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a flop back in 1946, into the holiday classic it is today. “PBS stations were the first to jump on the bandwagon in the early 1970s, using the saga of the small-town hero George Bailey as counter-programming against expensive network holiday specials,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1999. “To the general amazement of TV program directors, the audience for the film grew and grew over the years, until now many families make the movie an annual ritual.”

Ironically, though, it also led Republic Pictures to step in and reassert its claim on the film. Slate’s Matt Alsdorf takes the story from there:

Republic regained control of the lucrative property in 1993 by flexing a new Supreme Court ruling that determined that the holder of a copyright to a story from which a movie was made had certain property rights over the movie itself. Since Republic still owned the copyrighted story behind “It’s a Wonderful Life” and had also purchased exclusive rights to the movie’s copyrighted music, it was able to essentially yank the movie out of the public domain: It claimed that since “Wonderful Life” relied on these copyrighted works, the film could no longer be shown without the studio’s blessing. (Technically, the film itself is not copyrighted. One could hypothetically replace the music, rearrange the footage, and sell or show the new product–but no one has done this.) In 1994, Republic signed a “long-term” deal granting NBC exclusive rights to broadcast the movie, and the network typically does so between one and three times a year.

So in the space of three decades or so, “It’s a Wonderful Life” went from the most overexposed of Christmas movies to the least. I’m sure Republic could make the movie available on demand, but I doubt the network-who-shall-not-be-named would like the idea. Alsdorf adds that corporate copyrights now last for a maximum of 95 years, which means “It’s a Wonderful Life” may not return to heavy rotation until around 2041, by which time I’m sure Steve Jobs will already be beaming movies directly into our brains or something.

If you live in Rhode Island, though, the 1946 movie isn’t your only option for getting a fix of Zuzu’s petals this year. Five actors from Trinity Rep will play the movie’s dozens of characters on stage in “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” starting Friday and continuing through Jan. 2.

We now return to our regularly scheduled Rhode Island politics-and-economics blogging, already in progress.

(image credit: Wikipedia)

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