Jury finds school infringed copyright by copying study guides. DYNASTUDY v. HOUSTON ISD

Jury finds school infringed copyright by copying study guides. DYNASTUDY v. HOUSTON ISD

A copyright grants its owner the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display, perform, transmit and make derivative copies based on the original copyrighted work.  If someone other than the copyright owner attempts to exercise one of these exclusive rights that can be considered copyright infringement.  A copyright owner can file a lawsuit to recover damages for copyright infringement which has occurred.  For copyrighted works that are unregistered, the plaintiff must prove actual damages.  For registered copyrighted works, statutory damages are available.   Statutory damages for copyright infringement can range from $750 to $30,000, however, if the plaintiff proves that the defendant committed willful infringement statutory damages can increase to $150,000 per infringement. 17 U.S. Code § 504(c)

A copyright grants its owner significant control over how the copyrighted work may be used, however there are some limits to copyright.  The purpose of copyright is to to promote the progress of useful arts and science by protecting the exclusive right of authors.  To promote that goal there are some instances where copyright infringement will be excused.  Fair use is an important doctrine in copyright law that limits a copyright owner’s rights.  Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder for purposes such as criticism, parody, news reporting, research and scholarship, and teaching.  Fair use is an affirmative defense to copyright infringement that excuses behavior that would normally be considered copyright infringement.

When a court is presented with a fair use defense to copyright infringement, four factors will be considered to determine whether the defendants activity constitutes a fair use. Those factors are: 1) The purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; 2) The nature of the copyrighted work, such as whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, published or unpublished; 3) The amount of the work used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, such as using a poem in its entirety, or using one chapter from a long book; 4) The effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work.

There are also limits to the activity which fair use will excuse.  The fair use doctrine will not excuse a teacher from copying an entire textbook, even though the teacher is using the copied text book for teaching purposes.  Because the fair use doctrine is open to interpretation and dependent on the facts of a case is is valuable to study prior cases to learn what activities courts have considered fair use in the past.

A case which illustrates when an educational institution is not protected by fair use is DYNASTUDY v. HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, 4:16-cv-01442 (S.D.TX 2016).  The plaintiff in this case publishes study guides for middle school and high school level courses. These study guides distill a whole year’s worth of information into a large double sided sheet of paper.  The defendant in this case is a school district in Texas.  Teachers in the school district repeatedly copied the study guides and gave the copies to students, sometimes cropping the copies to remove the plaintiff’s copyright notice.  The plaintiff learned of the defendant’s copying and filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement.  The defendant argued that the fair use doctrine excused their behavior because the copying was for educational purposes.

The jury in the case was not persuaded by the defendant’s arguement.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and awarded $9.2 million in damages.  While the defendant may appeal the verdict it is difficult to see how the defendant will convince a court that the jury’s verdict should be set aside.

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