Did a Typo Accidentally Make Rudolph’s TV Special Public Domain?

TV URBAN LEGEND: A typo accidentally made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV Special public domain.

Everyone knows the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV Special that has been airing yearly on CBS for over FIFTY years now…

The story of Rudolph, mocked for his shiny red nose, who heads off with a depressed elf named Hermey (who wants to be a dentist instead of work for Santa Claus) and end up on an island of Misfit Toys before everything works out for everyone involved, is a total classic.

However, did you ever notice that there is a major error in the opening of the special?

See how it says MCLXIV? They left out an M. It is supposed to read MCMLXIV. Thus, it is claiming that the work is copyrighted in the year 1164 instead of 1964 (the special was a bit rushed towards the end, which possibly explains why originally they didn’t bother to show the Misfit Toys actually getting rescued, until viewers complained so much that they had to make a change the following year).

That’s seemingly just a silly mistake, but in actuality, that sort of thing could be a major problem. You see, in the Copyright Act of 1909, it specifically required copyrighted works to list the correct date for their copyright. An errant copyright, even if it was just a typo, WOULD lead to the work no longer qualifying for copyright protection. The 1976 changes to the Copyright Laws amended that aspect of the law, so that errors would no longer automatically keep you from getting copyright protection. That was only for works copyrighted after 1978, however.

So that would certainly appear to mean that this special is in the public domain, right?

Not so fast.

You see, the main character in the film, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, WAS under copyright (in one of the sweetest stories of corporate generosity ever, Montgomery Ward gave the copyright to the character to the employee who created Rudolph as part of a store Christmas giveaway). Rudolph is also currently protected by federal trademark, meaning that you couldn’t name any project “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” without permission from the Rudolph trademark owners (I think there’s a company specifically set up just to handle this Rudolph-related intellectual property stuff). Similarly, all of the songs in the film were independently copyrighted, so you couldn’t use any of them.

However, as I have written in the past, the writer of the special hadn’t even had the chance to read the book where Rudolph originated, so there are lots of new characters introduced in the special.

That doesn’t take away, though, from the fact that the special is mostly wrapped up in the very much copyrighted Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, so the special itself would likely be considered a derivative work, thus avoiding any specific issues arising from the rest of the special not being officially copyrighted. In other words, while it was not OFFICIALLY copyrighted, it likely would be considered protected under a sort of default copyright derived from being a work based on a copyrighted character like Rudolph.

Even were that not to be the case, again, the songs are all copyrighted, Rudolph is copyrighted and Rudolph is also trademarked, so what benefit would possibly be gained for any person trying to exploit the public domain status of the special? Maaaaaaaaaaybe you might be able to do a Yokun Cornelius special or a Hermey special, but is that really worth anything? And that, again, is only if a judge ruled that those characters weren’t protected by being derivative copyrights of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!

So, in effect, no one has ever really bothered to push the issue on the subject for that very reason, so for all intents and purposes, the special still remains under copyright protection.

So, the legend is…

STATUS: False Enough for a False (but perhaps with some truth mixed in there).

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of TV. Click here for more legends specifically about Christmas.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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