Intellectual Property and Identity Politics: Playing with Fire

30 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2001

See all articles by Madhavi Sunder

Madhavi Sunder

Georgetown University Law Center


Fears that globalization and heightened cultural traffic will lead to homogenization and the loss of culture has scholars and activists turning to intellectual property law to provide minority cultures with a legal means to protect their cultures from dilution and appropriation. This Article criticizes current arguments for using intellectual property to help minority cultures regain control of their communities. While acknowledging concerns about cultural integrity, Professor Sunder fears that appeals to law to reinforce a culture's borders may often be motivated by cultural elites' desire to suppress internal cultural movements for reform, rather than to protect a culture from external attack. Using as a case study the Indian right-wing assault on "Fire," a film depicting an Indian lesbian relationship, Professor Sunder argues that today, it is increasingly difficult to determine what cultural changes are part and parcel of modernity and what changes are spurred by a culture falling prey to imperialism. She warns that legal intervention in the name of preserving "cultural integrity" could have the effect of making cultural boundaries even more difficult to transgress. To the extent that legally regulated cultural boundaries could lead to greater repression of individual autonomy within culture, Professor Sunder argues that mixing intellectual property and identity politics is playing with fire.

Keywords: Intellectual Property, Indigenous Knowledge, Identity Politics, Cultural Survival, Cultural Dissent, Law and Identity

Suggested Citation

Sunder, Madhavi, Intellectual Property and Identity Politics: Playing with Fire. Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 2000, Available at SSRN: or

Madhavi Sunder (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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