How a School District Wasted $7.8 Million

Burning millions (not counting legal fees) to save thousands...

DynaStudy is a small, two-person company that publishes notes, study guides, activity books and games for schools to share with their students. Though seemingly well-loved, they are also very expensive, running $130 for a pack of 30 plus a teacher’s CD.

Because of this, many teachers and many schools simply make their own copies of DynaStudy’s content, flouting copyright law. In response to this, DynaStudy placed strong copyright warnings on the footers of their notes and have worked hard to stop infringement.

However, when they discovered that educators at the Houston Independent School District (HISD) were making unauthorized copies of their notes, they unwittingly kicked off a comedy of errors that saw the school district go from dealing with a relatively minor copyright infringement case to a $9.2 million judgment.

The sad part is, the whole thing could have been easily avoided and, failing that, could have been greatly minimized. If it hadn’t been for questionable decisions by the school district and the educators in it.

Special Thanks: I want to give special thanks to Jacob Carpenter at the Houston Chronicle for his excellent and ongoing coverage of this story. Links to his various stories are in the text below and are well worth reading.

A Copyright Debacle

The story begins in the winter of 2013 when the principal of HISD’s Westside High School proposed making copies of DynaStudy’s guides so that students could take them home. One teacher spoke up, expressing concern over copyright and suggesting that the guides could be collected after class.

However, those concerns were pushed aside and the teacher decided to go along with it saying in an email, “I’m ok with violating it though…lol.”

In 2016, DynaStudy caught wind of infringements taking place at HISD and approached the school with a settlement offer. For just $250,000 they would avoid litigation and move on from any and all infringements.

The HISD rejected that offer and kicked off what became a three-year legal battle. During that time, the HISD offered a wide variety of legal defenses including fair use, ignorance of the law (in spite of the prominent warnings on the notes), that they had cooperated with removal requests and pointing out alleged issues for when DynaStudy filed for copyright registration.

For DynaStudy, they simply learned about more and more infringements and the various ways teachers flouted the law. In addition to the email chain, teachers would use tape to cover up the copyright warning, share the documents on the local intranet as well as the broader internet and how some of the guides had reached school districts across the country.

Ahead of the trial, the two sides met again to discuss settlement. This time DynaStudy proposed a settlement of around $4 million and the HISD countered with an $800,000 offer. They couldn’t reach an agreement and the case went to trial.

There, the jury took little sympathy on the HISD and handed down a $9.2 million judgment against them. Though the HISD quickly sought a reduction in that amount, the damage was seemingly done as the story became something of a news sensation.

This also brought out the district’s insurance company, which filed a lawsuit alleging that the HISD had not followed the terms of their agreement and that they were not responsible for paying the judgment.

In the end, that issue turned out to be moot because the school was working again to settle the case. Earlier this month, the HISD board approved a settlement that was not disclosed at that time and yesterday it came down that the two sides had agreed to resolve the dispute for $7.8 million, which is $7.55 million more than the original offer.

Worse still, if the HISD had accepted the original settlement offer, they likely wouldn’t have had to pay at all. According to their insurer, that’s the maximum amount they can pay out without prior approval.

In short, the whole mess could have been easily avoided multiple ways but, at every turn, decisions were made to extend and worsen the case.

Missed Opportunities and Bad Decisions

The obvious solution to this story would be for the HISD employees involved to simply not commit copyright infringement in the first place. While it might be difficult to control every single teacher’s actions, officials certainly didn’t have to encourage and even endorse infringement, even putting it in writing.

However, when DynaStudy learned of the infringement, the HISD had an opportunity to minimize the case. While it’s impossible to know why they and their attorneys opted not to take that initial settlement, it’s very clear in hindsight that it was the wrong move.

It’s likely that they thought their case was stronger than it was or that they, like DynaStudy, were unaware of just how much infringement there was at that time. Either way, that rejection looks very foolish in light of what we know today.

But the blame here doesn’t really go to the lawyers, it goes to those in the HISD that committed and encouraged the widespread infringement. Despite the warnings, they made copies of the documents, covered up copyright notices and even posted the materials on the web.

In a bid to save a few thousand dollars, they ended up costing the district $7.8 million.

To be clear, there are no winners here. Sure, DynaStudy secured a major legal victory and will receive a windfall, but there is little joy in suing your customers and it’s not a good long-term strategy. Sometimes it is necessary, but it is never pleasant.

As for the HISD, they likely won’t be too damaged by this. They have a $400 million “rainy day” fund they may tap for this but it’s unlikely that this settlement will create a major problem for them.

Still, it’s $7.8 million that could have gone toward educating the students, including buying study guides. Instead, it’s going to pay for the actions of educators that ignored copyright law and the school district paid the price.

This isn’t to say that the educators involved aren’t sympathetic. They simply wanted what was best for their students and felt the guides were a valuable resource. As noble as their intentions might have been, doing it the way they did only made things worse for the district and for those same students.

Hopefully, the next time school officials are debating whether or not to infringe copyright, this case will come up and future incidents like it can be avoided.

Bottom Line

If anything good can come of this case, it’s as a lesson to others. School districts, much like corporations, need to understand the importance of talking with their rank and file about copyright and the importance of following the law.

While I’m sympathetic to the teachers in this story, I’m also sympathetic to employees that pirate software they need to do their job their company won’t provide and I’m sympathetic to web designers that grab random images because they have no budget to license new ones to use.

Many times copyright infringement happens for sympathetic reasons but that doesn’t make it right. While we can talk about the need to respect the work of other people and to support those efforts, it is ultimately the financial considerations that speak the loudest to some.

This case is a powerful reminder of just how large those financial considerations can be and, hopefully, it will motivate other school districts to avoid the same mistakes.

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