Houston District Hit With $9 Million Verdict Over Illicit Copying of Company’s Materials

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DynaStudy lawsuit, copyright

A jury has awarded an education publisher $9.2 million in damages stemming from a lawsuit that accused the Houston school district of allowing the illicit copying and posting of the company’s materials online, despite repeated warnings to stop.

Jurors in a federal court in Houston made the award after hearing the publisher DynaStudy argue that the district’s actions violated copyright laws and resulted in lost sales and a devaluing of the organization’s work.

DynaStudy, which is based in Texas, provides students with course notes that offer reference guides throughout the year and study aids before unit tests and standardized assessments. The course notes cover a variety of subjects and grade levels and are meant to be aligned to Texas state standards. DynaStudy says the lawsuit focused on 38 of its copyrighted works.

The process of taking a year’s worth of subject matter and fashioning them into study guides is “intensely design-focused, detail-oriented, and labor-intensive,” DynaStudy argued in its lawsuit. Numerous district employees were accused of duplicating and sharing the materials despite warnings on the documents that said, “Copying This Material is Strictly Prohibited.”

DynaStudy’s lawsuit accused Houston officials of flouting copyright law on several occasions between 2012 and 2015. In one instance, a biology teacher was alleged to have posted a copy of the DynaStudy materials with the copyrights and trademarks removed. In another case, a high school employee was said to have put DynaStudy physics and chemistry resources online for anyone to download.

The copied materials ended up getting used across Texas, the lawsuit claimed.  DynaStudy cited one instance of a Houston official posting a set of materials online, which were then reposted in the Aldine, Alief, Austin, Clear Creek, Georgetown, Midland, and Tyler independent school districts, among others.

Warning Signs

The jury evidently found the company’s arguments compelling. It awarded damages of different amounts for copyright violations of materials in different subject areas and grades, which collectively reached more than $9 million. The legal parameters in awarding the damages were set by the court.

DynaStudy is a small company—it has two full-time employees, and relies on a number of contractors—and has been in business for more than 13 years, owner and president Ellen Harris told EdWeek Market Brief in an e-mail. It says it has sold its product DynaNotes to more than 650 school districts and a small number of schools outside the state.

There are many publishers of supplemental educational materials who fill a wide gap between the large textbook publishers and teacher-created materials,” Harris said. “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.”

Copyright enforcement has traditionally been a huge concern for educational publishers, and for organizations that represent them. (Language about the “harms of copyright piracy” was even slipped into the Every Student Succeeds Act, at the behest of industry groups.) School district associations and lawyers issue warnings to districts not to countenance the illicit copying of materials. The size and scope of the verdict in Houston stand out.

Asked if they would appeal the verdict, Houston school officials said in a statement they were disappointed with the decision and reviewing next steps.

District officials said they have added an annual online training on copyright laws that is required for all employees at the beginning of each school year, and that it also provides in-person training to its principals.

“HISD will certainly be adding additional training and safeguards concerning the reproduction of copyrighted materials going forward,” the district said.

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Photo: an image of DynaStudy’s materials, cited in the company’s lawsuit against the Houston school district.


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