Houston district must pay $9.2 million for violating study guide copyrights

Houston district must pay $9.2 million for violating study guide copyrights

A federal jury found that dozens of district employees repeatedly violated the copyright of study guides produced by DynaStudy, a company based in Austin, Texas.

A federal jury has ruled that the Houston school district must pay an Austin-based company $9.2 million after concluding dozens of district workers violated federal copyright laws by repeatedly misusing one of the firm’s study guides.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the firm, DynaStudy, had asserted in a civil trial that school district employees had cropped out the company’s logo, hid copyright violation warnings and widely distributed the study guides to colleagues throughout the district.

In 2013, the principal of Westside High School in Houston suggested making copies of study guides recently purchased from Dynastudy, but an English teacher pointed out that there was a “glaring disclaimer about copyright” at the bottom of the documents.

The teacher suggested the guides should be handed out during class and picked up before the final bell. But when the school’s principal brushed aside the copyright concerns, the teacher fell in line.

The jury found that dozens of school district employees repeatedly violated federal copyright laws pertaining to the guides.

The verdict offered a resounding victory to DynaStudy, a 13-year-old company with two full-time employees that has sold educational products to more than 650 Texas districts. DynaStudy first raised potential copyright issues with HISD in 2012, filed its lawsuit in 2016, then spent three years in litigation with the state’s largest school district.

“DynaStudy is inspired to return its energy and resources back to its mission of ‘evening the learning field’ by getting effective learning tools into the hands of students in Houston and across Texas,” the company’s owner, Ellen Harris, wrote in an email. “This verdict both affirms copyright law and enables DynaStudy to reimagine the best possible business model to accomplish its mission.”

In a statement the Houston district  says it is reviewing the verdict to determine next steps.

District administrators did not respond to questions about what source of funds would be used to pay the verdict. The district budgeted about $1.9 million in fiscal 2019 for liability insurance, though it’s not clear whether the insurance would cover the verdict.

Lawyers for the district offered multiple defenses for employees’ actions throughout the litigation: Staffers were not aware of copyright violations; educators engaged in “fair use” of reproduced copyrighted work; improperly published material was immediately removed from the Internet; and DynaStudy provided inaccurate information when seeking federal copyrights.

However, jurors found that shcool employees violated copyright laws hundreds of times over a decade, improperly using 36 study guides created by DynaStudy. In its lawsuit, the company described various methods of skirting copyright rules, often validating the claims with email exchanges or Internet postings made by employees.

Harris says companies such as DynaStudy “fill a wide gap between large textbook publishers and teacher-created materials."

“DynaStudy is proud to have played a role in affirming the rights of copyright owners so that all these small companies and the authors to come can continue to create and contribute to the dynamic market for educational materials,” Harris says.

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