Why do I consider this to be a big deal in entrepreneurial history? It’s not because the film was a big money maker. It wasn’t:
Despite initially being considered a box office flop due to high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the film has come to be regarded as a classic and is a staple of Christmas television around the world. Theatrically, the film’s break-even point was actually $6.3 million, approximately twice the production cost, a figure it never came close to achieving in its initial release. An appraisal in 2006 reported: “Although it was not the complete box-office failure that today everyone believes … it was initially a major disappointment and confirmed, at least to the studios, that Capra was no longer capable of turning out the populist features that made his films the must-see, money-making events they once were.”
It’s because someone at National Telefilm Associates forgot to renew the copyright in 1971 and now, film’s images are in the public domain. Just the images, though. The story is still copyrighted, though, because it is derivative work of the published story “The Greatest Gift”, whose copyright was properly renewed.
This lack of copyright opened the door for a number of interesting business opportunities over the years, including being the first feature-length movie released on CD-ROM, several years before DVDs became commonplace. In 1993, Kinesoft Development released the CD-ROM for Windows 3.1. The movie offered the opportunity to follow along with the shoot script side-by-side with the movie. The video also pushed the technological barriers of the time by being the longest running video of the time. Before the software updates Microsoft made to Windows 3.1 to accommodate the video, Windows was limited to about 15 minutes of video. It’s a Wonderful Life’s 130 minutes was quite a feat for a PC with a 486SX processor and only 8 MB of RAM!