Re: Films in Public Domain (Was: Cert granted in Eldred)

From: Tyler Ochoa <tochoa[_at_]law.whittier.edu>
Date: Wed, 27 Feb 2002 10:49:52 -0800


>>> Elias[_at_]aol.com 02/26/02 23:28 PM >>> wrote:
Actually, the film's score was NEVER separately registered or renewed. The film's distributor, Republic Pictures, filed a Memorandum of Exclusive
License relating to timed-relation synchronization for four specific songs (This is the Army Mister Jones; Avalon; North America Meets South America; Vieni, Vieni). Also, the underlying literary work (The Greatest Gift/The Man Who Was Never Born) was registered and renewed. Although the film's copyright wasn't renewed, Republic barked loud enough with the underlying work/synchronized music issues that it basically pushed the film out of p.d., although clip use--as long as you didn't use the music from those four songs--would be o.k. - Elias Savada Director, Motion Picture Information Service <<<<<

I thank Mr. Savada for his correction and his more accurate information.  Here are two brief excepts from law reviews with citations to newspaper accounts:

Debra L. Quentel, "BAD ARTISTS COPY. GOOD ARTISTS STEAL": THE UGLY CONFLICT BETWEEN COPYRIGHT LAW AND APPROPRIATIONISM, 4 UCLA Ent. L. Rev. 39, 47 n.46 (1996):

[FN 46] For example, in 1974, the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life" was thought to enter the public domain, when the copyright owner failed to file the required copyright renewal application. Television stations across the country were free to show the film without engaging in infringement. However, Republic Pictures, owner of the original negative, determined that while the film was in the public domain, the copyright law still protected the underlying story and the music that accompanied the film. Thus, Republic Pictures claimed ownership in the music and the underlying story. Today anyone who shows the film without the permission of the copyright owner is infringing the owner's exclusive right. As a result, "It's a Wonderful Life" has enjoyed a second chance at copyright protection. Chris Koseluk, Not a 'Wonderful' Year; Now We'll Discover What Life is Like Without George Bailey, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 13, 1993, at 22. See also, Eric P. Early, It's a Wonderful Life-Motion Picture Studios can Regain Control of their Wayward Classics, 1 UCLA Ent. L. Rev. 139 (1994).

Steven Mitchell Schiffman, MOVIES IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN: A THREATENED SPECIES, 20 Columbia-VLA J. L. Arts 663, 671-72 (1996):

Produced and initially distributed by RKO Pictures in 1946, and later assigned to Republic Pictures, the copyright in It's a Wonderful Life expired in 1974 when Republic Pictures failed to renew it. For nearly two decades, senior management at Republic Pictures accepted the common *672 belief that It's a Wonderful Life was in the public domain. But in 1993, Republic Pictures "discovered" that it still owned the copyright in the Philip Van Doren Stern short story, The Greatest Gift, upon which the film was loosely based. [FN49] Shortly thereafter, Republic quietly obtained exclusive rights to the music that was used in the movie, and issued cease and desist letters to the many broadcasters and distributors of the film and videotape versions. [FN50] In 1994, NBC acquired the exclusive broadcasting rights from Republic. [FN51]

Thus far, Republic has avoided litigation, and therefore any definitive court ruling on the status of It's a Wonderful Life.

[FN 48] See, e.g., Jay Bobbin, 'Wonderful Life' to flash before our eyes only once, THE BALTIMORE SUN, Dec. 10, 1994, at 1D.

[FN 49] See James Bates, Company Town Yule With Less 'Wonderful Life'? Tune In, L.A. TIMES, Nov. 23, 1993, at D4.

[Notes 50-51 cite to these two articles]

Tyler T. Ochoa
Associate Professor and Co-Director
Center for Intellectual Property Law
Whittier Law School

Visiting Associate Professor
University of California
Hastings College of the Law Received on Wed Feb 27 2002 - 18:52:19 GMT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : Mon Mar 26 2007 - 00:35:44 GMT