5 Ways Copyright Has Shaped the Holidays

It's a Wonderful Life Poster

The holiday season is upon us, and it’s safe to say that festivities are kicking into high gear.

However, as you enjoy your favorite seasonal traditions, it’s important to remember that, just like most things in our lives, copyright has had a role in shaping it.

Whether it’s a movie becoming a holiday classic due to it being (briefly) in the public domain, holiday songs still very much under copyright, multiple legal questions around a children’s classic or some long-running myths that have changed the way people view some of the season’s most important characters, copyright has been a factor.

So, since it is the holiday season, let’s take a look at five ways copyright has helped shape our season’s traditions.

1: It’s a Wonderful (Copyright) Life

It’s a Wonderful Life is currently a Christmas staple. It’s now of the best-known and best-loved holiday films. However, that wasn’t always the case.

Released in 1946 and based on a 1939 short story, the film itself lapsed into the public domain in 1974 after Republic Pictures, the movie’s rightsholders, failed to renew the copyright on the movie. 

However, when TV networks learned of the oversight, they jumped on it. Eager to fill hours of airtime in December, networks began playing the film almost constantly. For those who grew up before 1992, you likely remember the film being on a constant loop during the winter months.

That began to change in 1993. Boosted by a separate copyright case over the film Rear Window, Republic Pictures, obtained the rights to both the music in the film and the original short story. They began sending out notices of copyright claim to TV stations and signed a long-term deal with NBC that gave them exclusive rights to air it.

It’s a movie that only became famous because it was free and now is largely protected by copyright, thanks to a shifting legal landscape.

2: Christmas Music

Christmas music is an interesting duality. On one hand, many of the most popular Christmas songs are well into the public domain (at least for the composition). On the other, many others are not and become lucrative revenue generators for decades to come.

For example, Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You has earned well over $60 million in royalties over the song’s run. Originally released in 1994, it has charted every year since its release, even hitting number one in 2019, 25 years after its debut.

One of the challenges is that it can be very difficult to tell which songs are and are not in public domain. That’s because many newer songs work to feel like “classics” that are much older and, after they’ve been around multiple decades, it’s easy to forget their relatively recent origins.

However, don’t let this lead you to think that you can’t play modern music at your private party. That is one of the many copyright myths that come with the holiday season

3: The How the Grinch Stole Christmas Parodies

As many likely already know, a new slasher film featuring the character The Grinch was released in theaters this weekend. However, the film is unlicensed by the Suess estate and, as we discussed last week, the filmmaker is moving forward with confidence due to the legal protections of parody.

However, this is a lesson that the Seuss estate has already learned. In 2016, the estate targeted an Off-Broadway performance of a one-woman play named Who’s Holiday. The play was to feature a grown up version of Cindy Lou Who, the character from the original book, who would be a vulgar adult who drinks, uses drugs and likely killed The Grinch.

The legal threats prompted the play’s creator, Matthew Lombardo, to file a proactive lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement. He won that case in September 2017

The Seuss estate is well-known for being aggressive with litigation. However, it appears that this win may have set the stage for more than just Who’s Holiday and opened the door to other parodies of the famous Christmas book and cartoon. 

4: A Pair of Christmas Copyright Myths

As with anything else, there are a slew of copyright myths that come with the season. Though we’ve already touched on some in this article, one that definitely needs to be discusses is the myth that Coca-Cola owns Santa Claus.

While it is true that Coca-Cola ads from the 1920s and 1930s played a key role in setting how most people think of Santa, the description of Santa they were based upon was actually from the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, which is more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas.

That poem was released in 1823 and has long lapsed into the public domain. This means that the version of Santa we all know isn’t owned by anyone.

But that doesn’t mean that all Christmas traditions are public domain. The Elf on the Shelf was first published in 2005 and is still very much protected by both copyright and trademark. 

Though the owners of the intellectual property haven’t been quite as litigious as the Seuss estate, they did file a lawsuit in 2011 against a parody book that was slated to be published. They failed to get an injunction in that case too. 

Still, it goes to show that the season’s traditions are a mix of new and old, setting up for some bizarre copyright issues.

5: The Battle Over Baby Yoda

2019 was an interesting year for Star Wars fans. In November, Disney+ opened its doors and released The Mandalorian. Though the series was an instant hit, it was the character of “Baby Yoda” that received the lion’s share of attention.

However, there was a problem. With the series releasing in November, official toys and merchandise for the character wouldn’t be released until May 2020. This meant that the 2019 holiday season would be Baby Yoda free, and that prompted many crafters to step in and fill that void.

Sites like Etsy and Ebay became flooded with unauthorized merchandise around the character. Everything from knitting/crochet patterns, dolls, paintings and more. 

Disney, for their part, came down hard, sending out a wide array of takedown notices targeting such unofficial merch. However, it was far too little, far too late. With no official merchandise, there was simply no way Disney could fill the void and others kept flooding into it.

The case became something of a warning. Though copyright enforcement can help and do great things, it can’t help you when you have the most popular toy of the year and no actual toys to sell. 

Bottom Line

Simply put, copyright plays a part in nearly every aspect of our lives. Often that connection is behind the scenes, many layers removed from the end user. 

Still, it shouldn’t be a surprise that copyright has altered the holiday season. So much of our traditions center around books, movies, songs and other kinds of protectable works that it’s inevitable.

Luckily, for most people, it’s fairly easy to have an infringement-free holiday season. Most of these issues are things that streaming services and retailers have to worry about, not end users.

It’s just interesting to think about the subtle ways copyright has and continues to steer those traditions as time moves on. 

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