More recent characters never enter the public domain because a handful of 1930s-vintage characters—Mickey Mouse, Batman—are owned by corporations that are still powerful today and have successfully lobbied congress to retroactively extend copyright terms. What we ought to do is go back to a sensible regime of finite copyright—perhaps the lifespan of the author or 50 years, whichever is longer—so that creators can still benefit from their works but that new generations of characters will enter the mythic realm of the public domain.I think the piece here that is underappreciated is the retroactive nature of the copyright extension. There is no way that extending copyright on Batman (today) will provide incentives to people in the 1930's to create more comic book characters.
I don't know where the right balance is. Matt proposes something vaguely sensible above, although one may be tempted to quibble with what is the correct period of protection. But infinite copyright isn't going to really serve the original public policy goals of intellectual property protection, and should definitely be rethought.
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