Title: Professor of law at University of California-Davis School of Law Education: J.D., Stanford; B.A., social studies, Harvard
Career mentors: Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago; Janet Halley, Harvard Law School; Margaret Jane Radin, University of Michigan
Advice for junior faculty: “I would advise junior scholars to find a faculty that will allow them to be courageous and to develop their own scholarly voice. Far too many junior faculty are told to play it safe and that they should hold off on ambitious projects until after tenure. I disagree.”
As a young Indian-American growing up in mostly White southern New Jersey, Madhavi Sunder’s most vital links to her cultural heritage included her uncles, aunts and cousins who emigrated from India to the United States. She heard stories of women in her extended family who did remarkable things â€” like her grandmother who became a professor of physics at one of India’s elite universities and who had been a tennis champion and class president.
That early connection to her culture fostered a strong interest in culture and in women’s issues that has persisted. It forms the core of her scholarship activities at the University of California-Davis, where she is a professor of law and where she teaches courses on intellectual property, international intellectual property and women’s human rights.
Sunder combines a keen interest in women’s rights with the impact of technology on intellectual property rights.
“My work really is about what culture is, how culture is changing in the 21st century in light of new technology and new social movements in how women, minorities and gays see themselves and demand to be heard,” says Sunder, who is rapidly emerging as one of the nation’s leading scholars in the legal regulation of culture, an area that largely focuses on copyright law, particularly as it relates to literature, music and film.
“My work challenges the traditional legal approach” to copyrights, she says. Sunder is a student and advocate of participatory culture, which is a growing desire on the part of many vulnerable populations like women, minorities and gays to remake the story lines and characters of popular books, films and folk stories in their own cultural images.
“In the past, a few cultural corporations would produce culture,” she says. But thanks to the Internet and the proliferation of technology, people are empowered to tell their own stories.
The key legal hurdle to this movement, she says, is that, under copyright law, authors, musicians and filmmakers have the exclusive right to authorize remakes of their work. She argues that individuals who seek to remake iconic works of art that either marginalize women, gays, or people of color should be allowed to do so. She cites the novel The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall’s parody of Gone With the Wind, as an example of this kind of participatory culture. Randall’s novel is written from the perspective of a slave.
Sunder’s interest in culture and intellectual property blends seamlessly with research on women’s issues. She explores the chasm between legal freedom and cultural freedom, particularly in developing countries with strong social norms. Without freedom in both spheres, she says, women are not free at all.
“You can’t assess how free women are without grasping cultural norms,” she says. For example, she adds, in some societies “social norms would dictate that women shouldn’t go out without a male guardian and that women belong in the home more even though there is no law against that.”
Demands from groups for a legal right to discriminate under the guise of culture should be scrutinized, she says. “More often than not, such claims are highly contested within groups. In fact, the ideas of equality, freedom, participation and human rights are prevalent in nearly all the world’s cultures today. These ideas are not just Western ideas or American ideas. …I suggest that law ought to recognize pluralism within groups and side instead with a rule that would allow greater equality and freedom within a culture.”
Sunder’s work has received a great deal of recognition. In 2006, she was awarded the Carnegie Corporation Scholarship to support her efforts to write a book on women reformers in the Muslim world. Her articles have received honorable mention in the Association of American Law Schools Scholarly competition. She has been nominated three times for UC-Davis’ distinguished teaching award.
“The fact that Professor Sunder has two distinct bodies of work â€” intellectual property and global feminism â€” is itself extremely attractive,” says Martha Nussbaum, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
“Her knowledge of women’s movements in a wide range of countries contributes to the originality and depth of her analysis of global culture. In the intellectual property field, what is distinctive about her work is its focus on the resourceful mixing of cultures, and the way in which borrowing and reinvention are part of artistic creativity in the global era. … And all this she develops with flair, wit and compellingly eloquent writing.”
â€” Lekan Oguntoyinbo