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Creativity, control and revenue

December 21st, 2002

Two stories in the Toronto Star television supplement caught my eye this week.

The first was about David Foley’s upcoming Christmas Special. In it, he and Joe Flaherty are doing a sendup of David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing Little Drummer Boy / Peace On Earth. Foley tells of having to rewrite both tunes and their lyrics when it was discovered they couldn’t get the rights to either song.

I wondered how it was that the authors or their representatives decided that they didn’t want their songs used in this way. I wondered further whether having released their creativity to the world they should really have injunctive power over its use or whether they should only have a right to be compensated for its use.

The second article was about It’s A Wonderful Life. Apparently it was not well received on release, losing half a million in late-1940′s dollars. It languished for years until 1973 when, not having had its copyright renewed by its owners (Liberty Films), it fell into the public domain after 14 years. At that time, TV stations started picking it up cheap to play at Christmastime and it became a perennial favourite.

For 20 years it remained in the public domain, there were many $4.99 VHS copies available, and there was even a colourized version. Somehow, in the 90s, Republic Pictures managed to reclaim the copyright. They have taken control, and produced a new master black-and-white print, and now it only airs on NBC and CBC and is only available on video from them.

How is it that this happened? Will it happen every time some obscure title becomes valuable after falling into the public domain that someone – not necessarily the creator – will find away to claim it for themselves?

2 comments to “Creativity, control and revenue”

  1. I believe copyrights are important and necessary for the true individual creators of works, especially for fair compensation. I do agree with you that Corporate America (or Corporate World for that matter) should not be able to usurp these rights. In the absence of being able to move that mountain, the least that could be done is to restrict their (corporations) rights to compensation only, as you suggest.


  2. Holy greed, Batman! I thought Public Domain was just that and when It’s a Wonderful Life went exclusive I figured the movie house that owned it’s rights sold them…I had no idea it was Public Domain…it’s amazing it took several years for this story to become widely known though, considering the media uproar when NBC bought/stole it in the first place…