STAFF WRITER JARED FIELDS
After a three-year legal battle, a Houston federal jury May 23 returned with a $9.2 million verdict against Houston Independent School District in favor of a Marble Falls business.
The business, DynaStudy, is a small educational publishing company that creates supplemental materials aligned with the state’s educational standards. In business since 2005, DynaStudy has 187 federally registered copyrights and has sold its publications to more than 650 school districts.
The scale of the Houston ISD case is what led to the large verdict. The lawsuit includes copyright violations from 38 works over 10 years, more than 500 HISD employees, and over 100 schools.
“We believe the jury’s verdict reflects the scope and nature of the infringement. Many copyright cases are about a small number of copyrighted works and a small number of people,” said DynaStudy co-founder and current owner Ellen Harris. “In this case, there were thirty-eight copyrighted works at issue, a duration of more than ten years, and the involvement of district and administrative personnel in addition to teachers and clerks.”
The trial lasted seven days with Harris on the stand for four of those days.
In all, the jury found 36 federally registered copyrights that the district “willfully infringed” upon. The jury was asked to list a monetary award from $750 to $150,000 per work. The jury’s awards ranged from both ends of the spectrum.
In 17 federally registered works for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the jury also found the district, through its employees, committed a violation in each case.
Harris moved the company to Marble Falls from League City in 2011.
“Hurricane Ike passed right over our old headquarters in 2008. Moving the office and warehouse was a priority once I bought my business partner out,” Harris said. “My husband and I have always loved the Highland Lakes area since our college days, so we felt very blessed to be able to live, work, and raise our children here.”
By 2015, copyright infringement issues were common.
“A normal part of my job became looking for infringing files that had been posted online and notifying districts to take them down, address the behavior, and investigate the incident,” Harris said.
Most districts quickly fixed the issue, but sales suffered.
“For example, variations of a scan of DynaStudy’s biology publication with the borders removed were found by DynaStudy on websites associated with thirty-five different school districts,” Harris said. “So, in the summer of 2015, DynaStudy hired legal help.”
According to Harris, “these colorful creations explain and exemplify a year’s worth of content for a course, such as Grade 8 Science, in just a handful of pages.”
Harris estimates millions of Texas public school students have used DynaStudy student course notes.
When Harris and HISD failed to reach a settlement, DynaStudy filed suit in May 2016.
According to the Houston Chronicle, HISD could have settled that year for $250,000. The Chronicle, in another story posted June 20, wrote that the district intends to file motions seeking a reduction of the $9.2 million verdict.
The verdict does not mean any money has been paid to DynaStudy, however. Harris said DynaStudy is “well-prepared to defend the verdict if HISD should choose to challenge the jury’s decision.”
In the meantime, DynaStudy is continuing to reduce overhead, finance operations, and legal costs. The company is providing a service to its customers and developing new products.
“DynaStudy is committed to its mission of getting effective, easy-to-use tools into students’ hands. The current business model of direct sales to school districts may no longer be viable for us,” Harris said. “We are taking a second look at direct-to-parent/student and also bookstore or distribution models. Changing a business model requires more investment though, so, for now, we are continuing with the current model.”