Rights Clearances & Amazing Stories

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This week and last were unprecedented in the volume of requests received at HQ for permission to reprint various works associated with Amazing Stories.  Among the requests were several from academic presses.  It seems that Amazing Stories has become a major subject of interest in academia;  we’ve even requested the possible reprint of one such paper already.

While interesting, that’s not the point here today.  I’ve now spent enough hours this past week summarizing the convoluted, crazy and (in)conclusive history of rights at Amazing to warrant summarizing it all in a post.

The gist of this piece is that while we are happy to try and help provide accurate rights clearances, in many cases we are simply unable to offer more than a “guess”, this, owing to Amazing’s near century of existence and its convoluted history of ownership.

Which is where we’ll start.

Hugo Gernsback, a successful publisher of a variety of magazines, primarily focused on scientific subjects, introduced Amazing Stories through his publishing company, The Experimenter Publishing Company, in 1926.

1929.  Gernsback loses the magazine and his publishing empire to bankruptcy.  It is sold to Irving Trust in receivership, which then sells it to Bergan A. Mackinnon, who continues publication with the original staff, changing the company name to Experimenter Publications.

1931.The magazine is acquired by Teck Publications (owned by Bernar McFadded, a rival publisher who may have instigated the original bankruptcy).

1938.  Following declining sales, the magazine is sold to the Ziff-Davis publishing group.

1965. Once again sales decline and the magazine is sold to Ulitmate Publishing, owned by Sol Cohen and Arthur Bernhard.

1982.  Bernhard sells the magazine, first, apparently to Jonathan Post, but actually to TSR, Inc, publishers of Dungeons and Dragons

1995. TSR ceases publication of the magazine

1997.  Shortly after being acquired by Wizards of the Coast, TSR briefly resumes publication

2000.  The magazine ceases publication once again

2004.  Paizo Publishing, created by the former TSR magazine staff, licenses the name and resumes publication

2006.  Paizo announces the cessation of publication

2008.  Hasbro, which had purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1999, allows the Amazing Stories trademark to lapse

2011.  Steve Davidson is granted the Amazing Stories trademark (applied for in 2008)

2012.  Davidson launches a multi-author blog under the name and forms The Experimenter Publishing Company, LLC.  Between 2012 and 2017, several special editions of the magazine, in electronic format, are published

2018.  The Experimenter Publishing Company resumes regular publication of Amazing Stories in both print and electronic formats.

Nine different owners publishing under a dozen different publishing entities over the course of 93 years, including 17 different editors, and publication in nearly every print format known to magazinedom.  Circulation from as high as 110,000 to as low as 14,000.

And if that’s not all….

Rights.

Historically during the early pulp era, magazines purchased “ALL Rights”, except of course when they were purchasing reprints.  This is believed to have prevailed during the Gernsback through at least part of the Ziff-Davis eras, perhaps even into the 1950s.

It is important to note that this is merely a strong supposition, not verified fact.  Contesting this is the fact that for several years, the Will Jenkins (Murray Leinster) estate has tried to claw back rights to various stories they insist remain under copyright to the author, but which have been treated as being in the public domain, owing to their appearance in Amazing Stories issues for which the publisher did not renew copyright.

Leinster was a savy author with a fairly strong name in the pulps at the time and it is entirely possible that he was able to negotiate a sale on terms other than those typically purchased by Gernsback and others.  It is also possible that Leinster himself renewed copyrights for various stories himself (presuming that, for example, he had only sold First North American Serial rights to the magazine).

It is also presumed that each of the purchasing entities at least through the Ultimate Publishing, if not through TSR, had purchased not just the name and distribution contracts for the magazine, but also existing inventories of art and fiction.

Ultimate Publishing certainly had acquired a lot of inventory as they used it to publish a huge series of reprint titles to sell alongside Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories – Great Science Fiction, Science Fiction Greats, Science Fiction Adventure Classics, Space Adventures, Strange Fantasy, SF Adventures, etc.

Further, Ultimate paid no reprint fees to authors, claiming that they owned all of the rights to the inventory they had acquired.  This was disputed, successfully, by SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association), with Ultimate ultimately settling and agreeing not to publish reprints from their inventory without paying reprint fees.

This is significant for two reasons:  first, because the publication of disputed stories strongly suggests that Cohen did acquire an extensive inventory of fiction when he purchased the magazine.  Second, because it strongly suggests that “ALL Rights” were not initially purchased for many of the stories in that inventory.

More recent history finds Wikipedia claiming that TSR acquired both the name and inventory when they purchased the magazine from Ultimate;  however, editors who worked on the magazine during the TSR era have stated that “only the name” was acquired (and presumably distribution contracts and subscriber’s list).

If so, where did the Ultimate Publishing inventory (which could have stretched back to the beginning of the magazine in 1926) go?  And if TSR did acquire inventory, was it the same that Ultimate had owned? Who still owns the rights to those stories for which All rights were purchased?  (or, have they fallen into the Public Domain?)

Earlier in pulp magazine history (40s?), publishers gradually gave up on the “All Rights” purchasing strategy and began, instead, to purchase more limited rights – first publication rights, etc.

Several authors whose careers have spanned these eras were contacted to inquire as to whether or not they had contracts relating to Amazing Stories sales so that rights purchased could be analyzed and verified.  As of this writing, the records are unavailable…either having been purged over time, lost or simply gone.  Personal memory is insufficient to make a determination.

Further, the successor organizations to various publishing entities have been queried (note that the current Ziff-Davis publishing company of Chicago does not maintain a corporate historian and those in their legal department claim no knowledge of archival records) and no records are available.

The individual rights sold by individual authors might be distinguishable by going through their records if they are now part of a University Library’s collection – but that would only (maybe) determine the status of an individual author’s individual story.

Finally –

Copyright.

Copyright rules have changed numerous times between 1926 and the present.  In addition to whatever terms applied when a story was originally copyrighted, numerous extensions have been granted over the years and, to complicate matters, some of those extensions required copyright owners to formally renew them at various times.

A magazine that purchased all rights to a story in one copyright era might have retained ownership – if they renewed their original copyright;  otherwise, that issue of the magazine containing that story would have fallen into the Public Domain.  Depending upon when the renewal was registered, the work might still have fallen into the Public Domain owing to the expiration of the extended copyright period.

A story, for which only limited rights was purchased might not have been renewed by the magazine – but might have been renewed by the author, since followng publication, the rights to the story reverted to the author, and, again, a story for which the author failed to renew at the appropriate time, or did renew but the extension has expired, would find that story in the Public Domain.

The only stories and art for which the current incarnation of Amazing Stories has solid information are those works which have appeared in our three new issues (and our pre-publication specials, for which all rights have now reverted to the original creators), and for those we only purchase initial publication rights (and some subsidiary rights);  we’ll be responsible for renewing copyrights (if such is necessary) for the magazine issues, but the authors and artists will be responsible for renewing their own copyrights, as they have retained the rights.

Boy isn’t that fun!?

So the bottom line on this is:

some works that have appeared over the years in Amazing Stories are in the Public Domain.  Many are not, with the magazine issues still being in copyright and/or the author/artist’s own copyrights still being in effect.

We are completely uncertain of the status of any individual story or piece of art, without checking the status of the individual work, which is almost always difficult and frequently yeilds no certain conclusion as to the work’s status.

We have no idea where the inventory went, nor who did or did not acquire inventory at various stages of the magazine’s history.

We do know that in the late 60s, early 70s, Ultimate settled with SFWA, essentially admitting that they did not own reprint rights to all or some of their inventory.

And we know that, depending upon when a work was sold, and depending on what rights were purchased, that work may or may not still be in copyright. (Maybe, maybe not.  How’s that for a definitive answer?)

Finally, we also know that many authors and artists did not establish estates to handle their works, or may have but succeeding generations of family have become unaware of the legacy.  (SFWA does maintain an estates list…another good resource.)

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).

So, sure, send along your rights clearance query.  As always we’ll be happy to help anyway and as much as we can.  If/when you do reprint something from Amazing Stories, we appreciate it greatly when you acknowledge our current Trademark status (because THAT is still in effect).  But please do understand that we may not be able to give you a clear clearance.

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