Infringing Copyright Leads to $9.2 Million Verdict Against School District

08.19.19

Educators work hard to provide the best services for their students, with extremely limited resources. The Internet makes it all too easy to cut, paste, modify, print, and use online materials. And educators tend to be generous about sharing materials, especially when it’s in the best interest of the kids. Do we really need to worry about that little © symbol, since it’s everywhere? And isn’t it all fair use, anyway?

Be careful!! Earlier this summer, the Houston Independent School District was slapped with a whooping $9.2 million jury verdict for copying study guides and distributing them to students. The principal ignored the warning on the guides: “Copying this material is strictly prohibited.” It didn’t help that in some instances, school staff covered up the logo of the company that had created the study guides and the copyright warnings before making copies. This turned what could have been an inadvertent case of copyright violation into an intentional act (which carries far greater damages).

The wide availability of materials on the Internet and in other places makes it all the more important for educators to understand copyright and fair use. Copyright law essentially allows the owner or author of a piece of work to control the distribution and use of that work. The “fair use” doctrine allows limited use of copyrighted material without the author’s permission. “Fair use” includes an exception for teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), but that doesn’t mean that school staff can simply make as many copies as they need of copyrighted material. The law requires a consideration of four factors: (1) the purpose and character of the use (including whether it is for a nonprofit educational purpose), (2) the nature of the copyrighted work, (3) the amount of the portion used in comparison to the full work, and (4) the effect on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. This can be a complex analysis. In general, schools should be careful about making more than a few copies of selected parts of a copyrighted work. Schools should avoid making copies of complete works.

This is also a tale about being very careful about texts and e-mails. In the Houston case, after a teacher pointed out the copyright protection to the principal, the principal responded (yes, in writing), “I’m ok with violating it though….lol.” That was an expensive sentence (and now the company that created the study guide is lol!). As we have all seen time and time again, casual comments expressed in writing will came back to haunt the author (and employer!). In addition to reminding staff about paying attention to the © sign, it’s a good time to remind them about being professional in all forms of communication.

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