When Jack Benny fans discovered that the CBS vaults contained some 25 original Jack Benny TV show episodes previously thought lost, they rejoiced. They approached the network for release of the public-domain footage, even offering to foot the bill for digital transfer and preservation. CBS balked, insisting that the fan club get approval from the Benny estate. No problem: Jack Benny's descendants were only too glad to have his original TV shows rescued from obscurity and given to the world.
But CBS balked again, citing unspecified "issues" (presumably potential copyrights in the score or other materials). Basically, CBS has decided that it could cost too much to pay a lawyer to figure out if they can release these films — or even turn them over to Benny's fans and family for release — and so it has decided to simply abandon them, sealing them back up in the vault forever.
This isn't how it's supposed to work. In the Constitution's progress clause, Congress is empowered to "promote the progress of the arts" through copyright. When copyright creates these deadlocks that doom America's artistic heritage to history's scrapheap, copyright needs to change.
Late last week the International Jack Benny Fan Club got some very bad news: rather than allow the club with the Benny family's enthusiastic blessing to digitally preserve some unreleased public domain Benny show masters that CBS has in its possession, the network is giving a thumbs down to the idea — thus sealing these shows' fate so they will never be seen again. In effect, it's a bullet through the head of this body of Benny work. And here is the most frustrating tidbit for comedy fans and those who study comedy: the Fan Club offered to do the preservation at no cost to CBS.
Why does this matter? Benny invented the situation comedy on radio in the 1930s, had perfect timing, assembled a cast of zany characters who poked fun at him, could extend a laugh by the way he slowly panned around the room after a punch line and influenced comedians such as Kelsey Grammer and Johnny Carson. In his final years, he could literally read a page out of the phone book and get laughs. His final weekly series went off the air in 1964 but he continued to do specials until he died in 1974.