When Paramount bought Liberty Films, It’s A Wonderful Life was added to it’s pre-1950 Library.
Then in 1955, Paramount sells this Library to U.M.&M. TV which was buying up shorts and cartoons to be turned around and syndicated on Television. Included in this deal are over 1600 short subjects and cartoons for $3.5 million dollars.
Well it wasn’t under U.M.& M.’s control for very long as the next year the catalog is bought by National Telefilm Associates - NTA - for a $4 million. In the 1957, NTA purchases what’s left of Republic Pictures - a lower tier studio started in 1935 which in itself was a merger of 6 Poverty row studios: Monogram Pictures, Mascot Pictures, Liberty Pictures (not to be confused with Liberty Films), Majestic Pictures, Chesterfield Pictures and Invincible Pictures.
Republic had made a lot of western serials and when Television first arrived and all the studios were in bunker mode, Republic was one of the first to approach broadcasters to syndicate their old film library.
And that’s how they made their money. By mid to late 50s, Republic had pretty much shut down most of their production, relying mainly on television syndication - turn around specialist Victor M. Carter would further diversify B-film studio into Republic Corporation and also dealt in plastics and appliances.
Back to NTA. So for about 20 years NTA makes a lot of money off the Republic library and in 1983 NTA buys the rights to the name and logo and resurrects the brand Republic Pictures.
During this time, the copyright renewal papers for It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t get filed and the film fell into public domain. Under the 1909 Copyright act, Intellectual properties were protected for 28 years with an option at the end to renew for an additional 28 years. No one renewed and Frank Capra who had retired from filmmaking didn’t force the issue.
Capra died in 1991. Shortly after Republic Pictures saw a way to regain control over the holiday favorite, using a court case involving another Jimmy Stewart Film.