P2P Regulating Digital Rights

Every student in the Sociology PhD program at the University of Toronto completes the Research Practicum course in their second year. This course involves each student working directly on a research project with a faculty member through the various stages of research and writing while also meeting with other graduate students in the course to tackle the hurdles of clarifying, strengthening, and sharpening one’s ideas in a journal-length research article. In this series, we highlight the practicum papers that went on to become published articles, and the students who wrote them.

Menard, Gabriel. “Copyright, Digital Sharing, and the Liberal Order: Sociolegal Constructions of Intellectual Property in the Era of Mass Digitization.” Information, Communication & Society, ISSN 1369-118X, 08/2016, Volume 19, Issue 8, pp. 1061 – 16

One of the defining features of our age is the ability to share information, ideas, knowledge, and entertainment in ways never before imaginable. Gabriel Menard began the PhD program with an interest in the social and political implications of the internet and instant communications technology. For him, the practicum was an opportunity to explore some ideas he had about the tension between access to information and regulation.

When he began planning for the practicum, Gabriel decided to ask Professor Jack Veugelers to supervise the project. Professor Veugelers is a specialist in social movements, political sociology and social theory. Though Veugelers’ own research is not connected to intellectual property rights, Gabriel knew he would provide useful support for this project because he had worked with Professor Veugelers as a Research Assistant and had developed a strong rapport with him throughout that project, What impressed Gabriel the most about Professor Veugelers was his ability to condense a “messy jumble of thoughts and ideas into a very clear and succinct summary of points.” Gabriel said that it didn’t really matter that his paper wasn’t in Professor Veuguelers’ substantive area of research, because he knew that his keen analytic mind would help him make sure he had all the elements of a strong paper in place. In the end, he found that the advice he received from Professor Veugelers was instrumental throughout the project, but especially crucial when Gabriel was revising the paper for publication. Professor Veugelers helped him restructure the paper around a cohesive narrative, and to fine-tune the analysis so as to more effectively communicate his findings.

Gabriel’s paper focuses on copyright reform in Canada. He started the project hoping that the Canadian case could illustrate some of the complexities of IP reform – and the tension between access and regulation – with more nuance than previous literature. The guiding research question is whether digitization of communications and media is having an impact on the development of intellectual property rights regimes. Gabriel was interested in this because it taps into a much broader discussion of whether and how digital technology disrupts existing institutions. With intellectual property rights, the tendency for a long time has been for rights protections to increase over time (with consequences for access to information and social inequality), but it seems digital technology might be disrupting this trend. The paper was about exploring that disruption.

For data, Gabriel used the text of legislative committee meetings, Parliamentary debates, and bills related to copyright reform in Canada (centering on the 2012 Copyright Modernization Act). During the practicum period, he accessed the data online, coded it for what stakeholders in the debate sought during committee meetings (as copyright reform was being considered), and compared that with the policies that came out of the reform process and into law.

By the time he finished the practicum, Gabriel had fully analyzed this data and found that, contrary to what much of the literature would lead one to expect, corporate interests are poorly represented in outcomes of the reform process. This finding caused him to interrogate the data through a variety of theoretical lenses. The practicum was a great venue for this. It provided him with the opportunity to explore a variety of literatures, theoretical frameworks, and academic perspectives even while focusing on his own particular research questions. Gabriel claims that the most useful aspect for him was the sheer diversity of feedback, which helped him consider the project from a wide variety of angles. Ultimately, Gabriel suggests that the poor representation of corporate interests is bound up with the rise of internet sharing practices which force us to reconsider longstanding assumptions about how, and to what extent, creative works can (or should) be exclusively controlled by individual legal ‘owners’ of those works.

When he finished the course, Gabriel’s paper was solid but he felt that it was bulky and cumbersome to read. He presented a draft at the annual European Consortium for Political Research Workshop in Spain shortly after the practicum had finished, and used the summer and part of the fall to consolidate his feedback. In early January, Gabriel submitted a revised draft to Information, Communication & Society, and the article was accepted for publication.