I doubt that this is exactly what Ross Douthat had in mind, but I have been thinking for a while about one version of extending the duration of a limited-scope copyright. I’d support a proposal that gave Disney unlimited duration ownership of Mickey Mouse and similar characters, both for economic and political reasons. The political reason is straightforward: if Disney got its own side deal, they would have no reason to keep up the push for indefinite extensions of copyright for books and other things I actually care about.
The economic reason is that Mickey Mouse is not a character in a black and white cartoon produced in the 1920s (and cribbed off someone else, IIRC), and his copyright protection does not (except incidentally) act to restrict people who want to reproduce or adapt Steamboat Willie today.
Mickey is, in the terminology of the industry, a franchise. Disney puts millions into producing and promoting Mickey every year, and reaps even more millions as a result. I think it’s plausible to claim that each individual franchise of this kind is a natural monopoly, and that we would be less well served with multiple Mickey suppliers, as opposed to competing franchises like Bugs Bunny (there’s an analogy here with the debate over sporting teams and leagues which I’m too lazy/busy to work out in full). So, I’d be happy to allow Disney, Warner Bros, DC, Marvel and so on to have permanent rights over their characters, as long as they kept on using them.
That’s the general idea, but implementation would obviously be problematic. For a start, if someone wanted one a permanent right I’d require an annual payment small enough not to restrict competition, but large enough to make it uneconomic to acquire rights over legions of characters “just in case”.
The more difficult question is what to do with characters derived either from the general culture or from specific literary works that we would want in the public domain. I was struck to find out, for example, that although Disney ripped Snow White from the Brothers Grimm, who in turn took it from the folk tradition (of course, without any notion of appropriating private property rights) they own the names of the Seven Dwarfs. Then there is the Bear Formerly Known as Winnie-ther-Pooh, a cartoon character bearing little resemblance to the original. I haven’t got a complete answer on this, but my general view is that protecting the franchise should not impinge on the standard creative uses allowed for work in the public domain.