Kieth Lynch wrote this excellent reply, which I reprint here with permission.
Lee Gilliland forwarded a message opposing a bill that would allow
reprinting copyrighted works after a thorough good faith attempt to
locate the copyright holder failed.
A short story:
In 2106, a publisher happens upon the last surviving copy of Alexis
Gilliland's _Wizenbeak_. He wishes to reprint it. It's still
under copyright, since the author lived to a ripe old age, and since
Congress extended copyright several times during the 21st century.
The publisher spends a month's savings doing an extremely thorough
search for the copyright holder. He discovers the following:
When Alexis's great-granddaughter started work at a think tank in
2041, she signed a contract with them assigning to them any and all
patents and copyrights of hers. It's not clear whether the contract
only applied to patents and copyrights she originated after signing
the contract; it was never litigated. So it's not clear whether she
or the think tank kept the copyright.
Her grandson divorced in 2092. The divorce papers said which spouse
each piece of property went to, but never mentioned _Wizenbeak_, so
it's not clear which party, if either, got it. The ex-wife then moved
to Mars and changed her name, and cannot now be located or even
confirmed to still be living.
The think tank went bankrupt in 2059. Its assets were parceled out
among 26 different creditors. The copyright to _Wizenbeak_ was not
mentioned, so it's not clear which of the 26, if any, got it.
The publisher is willing to put a reasonable amount of money into
escrow to be paid to the copyright holder, if one ever shows up.
But the law doesn't allow that as an option.
So he gives up in despair. Sure enough, as he feared, by the time the
copyright expired, that last surviving copy has long since been lost
Readers in 2106 can enjoy 19th century novels, as they're all out of
copyright status. They can also enjoy 21st century novels, as their
copyright owner is usually obvious. But the 20th century is a gaping
void, an era about which little is known. A handful of wealthy people
own what original 20th century novels happened to have printed on
acid-proof paper and escaped fire, flood, "de-cluttering," and other
vicissitudes of time. But the only 20th century SF novels available
to the masses are those that never went out of print: Those by
L. Ron Hubbard or John Norman. Understandably, the 20th century
is not well regarded.