Mohawk artist Tonya Maracle specializes in making dream catchers, but for the past six years she's been embroiled in a legal nightmare.
Maracle, who lives on a reserve in Eastern Ontario, has been waging a legal battle with Key Porter Books Ltd. over alleged copyright infringement. Despite limited resources and several offers to settle, Maracle refused to back down.
Her tenacity paid off. In a recent ruling, Ontario Superior Court Justice John McMahon decided in her favour and had some harsh words for Key Porter.
The judge called the company's conduct "disgraceful" and added: "The careless and sloppy manner in which Key Porter acted demonstrated what little concern they had for the copy rights of the First Nation artist, Ms. Maracle." While ruling that Key Porter did not act maliciously, judge McMahon awarded Maracle $40,000 in damages plus her legal costs.
"They thought we were going to give up," Maracle said from her studio on Tyendinaga First Nation Reserve near Belleville, Ont. "But we didn't."
Jordan Fenn, who recently took over from Anna Porter as Key Porter's publisher, said the company will appeal. "Copyright is such a big, important part of the publishing business," he said. Fenn declined further comment about the ruling.
The case dates back to November, 1998, when an assistant editor at Key Porter approached Maracle at an international powwow in Toronto about participating in a children's book about dream catchers -- webbed hoops that according to legend capture bad dreams. Maracle was thrilled and offered to donate her work in return for credit for her company, Soaring Eagle, the judge said in his ruling.
According to the court decision, Maracle gave Key Porter 20 dream catchers and requested a written agreement spelling out the terms of publication, namely that they be used in a children's book and that credit be given to her company. But Key Porter did not respond or even return her phone calls. Instead, it photographed her pieces and returned them to her six weeks later without an accompanying letter. Maracle thought the project had been cancelled.
Key Porter released a 127-page book in 1999 called Dream Catchers: Myths and History. It contained 21 pictures of Maracle's dream catchers, including a full-page picture on the cover. Maracle's first name was misspelled in the credits and Soaring Eagle wasn't mentioned.
Adding to the insult, the works were portrayed as Ojibway art, even though Maracle is Mohawk. The judge also said Dream Catchers was not a children's book, which was the reason Maracle agreed to the project.
"It was just one big mess," Maracle said. She only discovered the book was out when a relative saw it in a store.
Key Porter published nearly 10,000 copies of the book and argued in court that Maracle had given oral permission to use the pieces. But the judge rejected that argument, saying it "defies common sense."
"One would expect that a professional publishing company who carefully protects its own copyrights would be diligent in dealing with the rights of others," the judge said.
Maracle, 35, has been making dream catchers since the age of 9. She learned the craft from her father and grandfather while growing up on the reserve. She said that since the release of the Key Porter book, other artists have used it to copy her unique style. She sued to protect her work and her livelihood.
"I might be a little business, but I've been in business for 12 years and they just can't do that."
Key Porter tried to settle the action several times (the last offer was for $15,000) but Maracle refused, saying the issue was too important. With the case finally over, she just wants to focus on her art. "It's a big weight off my shoulders."