It’s A Wonderful Life (Without Copyright)

This holiday season I exited what is I imagine a rather exclusive club – those who have never seen “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Yes, I was always somewhat aware of its existence, what with the numerous cultural references, homages, and satirical spoofs one encounters in modern media. However I had never bothered to take the time to watch it until this past week. While this is no movie review, it was indeed endearing in a nostalgic/quaint sort of way; I can see why it is cherished and loved.

But, just as George Bailey got to glimpse the world had he never existed, I will ask you to ponder how your life might have been different had you never seen or heard of this film. Why? Because, but for a typographical error, it was nearly wiped from existence in 1974. Although the film premiered in 1946 it was not the box office success one might assume it was based on its current wide appeal. It actually did so poorly it drove Frank Capra’s (the director) production company into bankruptcy. And there it languished for the next 28 years (the automatic copyright period under the then governing 1909 Copyright act). But in 1974 a miracle happened: the filing for the additional 28-year extension was typographically botched in some way and it was not renewed.

At that point it was in the public domain. That meant that any network, TV studio, or local station could play it royalty free. We, the viewing public, were then inundated every Christmas for nearly the next 20 years with round the clock showings of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This forgotten tome became a cherished classic within a few short years, as permanent a fixture at Christmastime as Mistletoe or Eggnog.

Sadly in 1993 the copyright owner of the book (“The Greatest Gift”) the movie was based on was able to manipulate the court system and IP (Intellectual property) law to reestablish copyright over the movie. Some might argue this is only fair; they should be permitted to reap the rewards of their great grandfather’s efforts 50 years later. It is perhaps the definition of irony to use copyright law to establish ownership over something that derives its value solely from the lack of copyright.

So the moral of this story is that all our lives would be richer if some things (copyright, and all IP) had never existed. Consider the unseen harm of copyright: all of the otherwise obscure creative output locked away behind copyright never to be experienced by anyone. What, dear reader, are you missing out on?

(No, this is not a call for “free” stuff – without the artificial state imposed constructs of intellectual property laws other, non-coercive, models to artistic remuneration would emerge (as many have already today in response to online piracy)). If your business model requires the threat of violence to protect only the value of what you produce then there is something wrong with your model; violence is never the answer to getting what we want.