To that end, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has introduced a bill making changes to US copyright law, reducing the time large companies can hold copyright on, say, a cartoon mouse. Hawley’s news release does not conceal the target of his ire from him, calling it a “bill to strip woke corporations like Disney of special copyright protections.”
It’s hardly an accident that this comes after GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida won gushing praise from the national right for his own anti-Disney crusade. Disney became Woke Liberal Cultural Enemy Number One after opposing DeSantis’s law limiting classroom discussion of race and gender, leading DeSantis to strip away his special tax district from him.
What this highlights is that in the culture war primary, a senator is at a serious disadvantage against a governor. With DeSantis and Hawley plainly harboring 2024 presidential ambitions, Hawley has a lot of catching up to do.
In the new world of right wing politics, what must be demonstrated is a genuine and actionable willingness, even a frothing eagerness, to use state power to bring the leftist cultural enemy to heel. With many Republicans casting off old ideas about free-market capitalism and limits on government power, that may become a key litmus test.
When DeSantis signed that bill against Disney, he didn’t merely threaten to use state power against an enemy woke corporation, he actually did it. Going after his own state’s most iconic company, one that employs tens of thousands of Floridians and brings billions of tourist dollars to the state every year, only demonstrated his zeal from him.
And because the action was real, it generated enormous press coverage and more blowback from the left than Hawley’s rinky-dink proposal will ever get. That boosted DeSantis’s Own the Libs credibility, helping reinforce the idea that DeSantis is the foremost culture warrior on the right.
DeSantis has used his power as governor in other culturally charged ways. I have signed a notorious voter suppression bill. He wielded state power against local school officials who hoped to protect kids from covid-19 with masks, and against businesses that tried to protect workers and customers with vaccine mandates. Then came the “don’t say gay” law and the crusade against Disney.
Now compare all this with Hawley’s new proposal.
As a substantive matter, it’s pretty weak willow. It has a number of problems, according to Daniel Takash, an expert in copyright policy at the Niskanen Center.
First off, Takash notes, it would put the US in violation of an international agreement governing copyrights. Right now, with variations, US copyrights generally last for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years. Hawley’s proposal would limit this to a total of only 56 years — 28 initial years plus the option to renew for another 28.
But under our international obligations copyrights must generally last for a minimum of the creator’s lifetime plus 50 years. Hawley missed an opportunity to “explicitly peg” his bill’s limits to those international constraints, Takash says.
Second, Hawley’s proposal would retroactively shorten already existing copyrights that these companies have secured. Experts say this would amount to an unconstitutional taking, rendering it a nonstarter.
Third, the policy’s real rationale is muddled. There are reasonable arguments for rolling back copyrights — they can be seen as generators of inefficient rents — as a matter of good policy. But it’s hard to tell whether Hawley’s proposal is geared toward that goal or primarily toward punishing Disney.
Hawley applies his bill to a handful of large companies, seemingly to insulate it from the charge that it’s expressly punitive toward Disney for its cultural positions. It contains a provision applying it only to companies with a market capitalization over $150 billion, as Disney has.
Yet Hawley’s own rhetoric describes it as exactly that: As punishment directed at corporations such as Disney for being “woke.” As Takash notes, Hawley’s desire for the bill to “capitalize” on Disney’s notoriety on the right leads him to squander a chance to do a “broader reexamination” of how to reform copyright law.
In short, it’s all very convoluted. The poor Missouri senator’s proposal that will go nowhere is a mere cultural spitball compared to DeSantis’s mighty broadsides. DeSantis can sign concrete laws that land direct and clear blows against the leftist cultural enemy in a way that Hawley cannot.
And so, if Hawley hopes to catch up to DeSantis in the culture war primary, he’s going to have to get a lot more creative.