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It has ruined my life: Fighting copyright infringement without a lawyer

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – For people in creative professions the notion of copyright is fundamental. If your intellectual property is taken from you without compensation, there is often no other option but to take legal action.

And if you do decide to fight, but you can’t afford a lawyer, and the other party is say a university, you may end up in deep trouble.

Laura MacNutt. Photo Robert Devet

That’s what happened to Laura MacNutt. MacNutt, who has a Masters degree in Architecture, runs Pier101, a Wolfville-based company that provides custom design services for homes and commercial properties.

This is how she says her legal nightmare started.

In 2013 MacNutt did some design work for a major addition to an existing building for Acadia University. Her understanding was that she was loaning the university her drawings so that they could be used for a meeting with a potential donor. The University thought different.

“I devoted a whole summer and didn’t get paid for it. It’s not like somebody stole my computer, that would be a loss, but nothing more. This was what I had been working on my entire life, the ability to create copyright-protected material that I can then make a living off,” says MacNutt.

MacNutt felt that her intellectual property rights were infringed upon and when other ways to resolve the issue failed she initiated legal action against Acadia and one of her competitors.

Unable to afford a lawyer, she decided to represent herself.

She had no choice, she says. Like many creative people she depends on the ability to earn a living off copyrighted material. That ability was taken from her. And work was drying up once she had antagonized Acadia. “This wasn’t a job gone wrong. My career was derailed,” she says.

It didn’t go well.  

On June 21st, 2016, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge dismissed all claims, and ordered MacNutt to pay approximately $42,000 in legal costs. She is appealing, and that appeal will be heard in May. If she loses her appeal she will likely be saddled with additional legal costs.

This is not a story about the complexities of a legal case winding its way through the judicial system. This is a story about a person who represents herself in court, tries to find justice, and now risks suffering substantial personal and financial damage as a result.

It has ruined my life, it really has,” says MacNutt. “All I do now is trying to learn law. It is completely consuming my brain. I am desperately trying to keep pace, and I am up against an entire team of lawyers and their paralegals and assistants.”

“The law is on an extremely nebulous plane, there is no way I can really comprehend it. I attempt to navigate through it, but I have no experience. It’s Greek and my phrase book is pathetic,” she says.

Just to stay on top of the sheer logistics of her case is a challenge.

MacNutt just had to fork out $2,400 to pay for transcripts that the Court requires. Preparing the appeal book, how to consolidate all relevant documents and number them, it all has to be done in very specific ways, she says.

And the process is extremely antagonistic. A case that initially appeared simple to her has become very complex. 

“They have strategies that make it more difficult for me. There are opportunities for adversarial lawyers to crush self-representing litigants. It has nothing to do with justice. The original issue has disappeared,” says MacNutt.

It’s just not fair, she says.

“In all the 15 years I have lived here I never had an enemy. All of a sudden I am in this cesspool. Not because I was mean, but because I did something that was right.”

Read Laura’s story as she herself tells it here (make sure to check out the animations as well). This is also where you can make a donation to help with Laura’s legal costs. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Also, please support the Nova Scotia Advocate so that it can continue to cover issues such as poverty, racism, exclusion, workers’ rights and the environment in Nova Scotia.