Episodes of Betty White’s Historic TV Show Remain Available Online Thanks to Copyright Oversight

Several episodes of Betty White’s historic sitcom “Life With Elizabeth” remain available online, even after the icon’s death at 99, due to copyright oversights that left a smattering of television shows from early American broadcast history in the public domain.

Betty White, who passed away earlier today only weeks away from her 100th birthday, made history in 1953 as the first woman to lead a television sitcom with “Life With Elizabeth” and the show ultimately ran for two seasons, ending in 1955, and totaled at 65 episodes.

The TV icon portrayed a trouble seeking wife, and frequently left her husband, portrayed by Jack Narz, perplexed by her behavior. The early sitcom format consisted of three disparate segments, connected by an announcer, in the style of radio programs from the 1940s.

Beyond the significance of White’s status as the first woman to star in a sitcom, White also won her first Prime Time Emmy for her role as Elizabeth.

Today, several episodes remain available on popular video sharing websites, as well as on websites dedicated to preserving public domain materials, because some of the works were not properly copyrighted.

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In the third episode of the series, White and her on-screen husband appear to offer a rebuke of daylight savings.

At the time, there was no federal daylight savings plan, leading to a patchwork of different time zones scattered throughout the country.

A former television executive National File spoke to explained this sometimes happened due to random oversight: Television in the 1950s was generally shot live, and sometimes credits did not contain proper copyright materials.

In other cases, the copyrights were not properly renewed, allowing them to slip into the public domain.

In many similar cases, modern companies – and the estates of the stars – dispute the copyright status of these works.

Famously, several episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies” fell into the public domain. To discourage local broadcasters from airing episodes of the popular show, the memorable opening tune was copyrighted.

Undaunted, some local broadcasters replaced it with their own music and continued airing the episodes.

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Tom Pappert