On the website of the current incarnation of pulp SF magazine Amazing Stories, publisher Steve Davidson discusses in detail why clearing copyright for stories that appeared in old issues of the magazine can be so terribly difficult. It turns out there are many reasons.
Over the 93 years since the magazine was founded by Hugo Gernsback, the magazine has changed hands multiple times. None of the entities, or successors to the entities, that had previously owned it had any records available relating to rights ownership, or where the story inventories of prior incarnations had ended up.
The question of rights ownership is another troublesome issue. In the early days of the magazine, it was standard practice to buy up all rights and become the new copyright holder of the work in question. That changed somewhere along the way, and there’s evidence from court filings suggesting that somewhere along the way Amazing Stories stopped buying all rights—but nothing to suggest exactly when, or what rights it did buy.
On top of that, we have the changing length of copyright terms with new legislation, whether or not rights holders were required to register renewals, and whether anybody actually did.
Bottom line: if you want to reprint something that was originally published (or reprinted) in Amazing Stories, you may not be able to definitively determine its copyright status or its current ownership, and you may have great difficulty in finding someone who can provide definitive information. You can check the copyright office records, but you should also check for the individual creator’s records as well, since the copyright office has no record of what rights were purchased by the magazine, only whether or not copyright was originally registered and, if necessary, renewed (and whether or not that renewal is still in effect or has expired).
It’s well worth reading the whole thing, because only by understanding the full extent of all the travails and tribulations associated with keeping track of all the stories published in just one magazine can you start to get a sense of the trouble facing orphan works in general. Multiply these problems by every magazine and every publisher for the last century or so and you begin to see just how big the problem really is.
If we don’t want to lose access to these parts of our cultural history, there needs to be a process whereby people can get the right to use them if they can prove they’ve put a certain amount of effort into a fruitless rights search—and a safe haven limiting the amount of damages if a verifiable rights holder should subsequently appear. You would think someone could come up with and pass some common-sense legislation in that regard, and not try to weasel their way into it with an inappropriate lawsuit settlement. It would at least seem easier to do than shortening copyright terms in general.
In any case, this is another part of the reason we need some kind of copyright reform. If we could ever manage to pass it, that would be an amazing story.