Republic Pictures is asserting it owns the underlying rights to Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” and said it intends to take action against any party exploiting the film without a writ allowing them to do so.

The film, a holiday TV and home-vid perennial, has been presumed to be in the public domain since its copyright lapsed in 1974.

Republic claims it not only owns the copyrighted short story upon which the film is based, but that it has just acquired exclusive rights to the copyrighted music in the film from a group of music publishers including Warner/Chappell Music, Irving Berlin Music, Edward B. Marks Music and Shapiro, Bernstein & Co.

Republic is basing its claim of control over the film on a 1990 Supreme Court case that ruled that MCA and others were in violation of copyright law in re-releasing “Rear Window” without permission from the copyright holder of the “underlying” story on which the film was based (Daily Variety, April 25, 1990).

“Our position is the film was never in the public domain,” said Republic counsel James Tierney, who took the “Rear Window” case to the highest court. Because Republic holds pre-existing copyrighted material, such as the story, it still maintains control of the film, Tierney said.

If Republic successfully enforces its claim, it could mean a significant increase in revenues for the company, which intends to push for a theatrical re-release of a new print of the film in time for Christmas. Russell Goldsmith, CEO of Republic, said he intended to “forcefully enforce our rights,” with broadcasters, TV stations and cable programmers to ensure that a theatrical window can be offered to exhibitors.

Goldsmith has been licensing the picture to broadcasters, but was unable to win over theater owners for a limited run on the big screen.

“I think it would be outstanding to see this with freshly minted prints in selected theaters at Christmas,” he said. “The only way to do that is if (exhibitors) have a period that they know it won’t be on TV. This will create new opportunities.”

There are currently broadcast rights to the film for 1993, according to Goldsmith, who said he intends to go after unlicensed copies of the film.

The Christmas classic was produced by Capra’s Liberty Films and distributed by RKO Pictures. In 1969, Paramount sold the film to Republic.

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