APPEALING PROSPECTS The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Calif.

Fact Check

Axanar's Chances on Appeal

After Losing Its Fair Use Defense, How Much Can Axanar Count on the ‘Liberal’ Ninth Circuit?

See also: Judge Denies Axanar Its Fair Use Defense

Producer Alec Peters tried to put a hopeful spin on what had to be a crushing blow in a federal judge’s January 4 ruling that Axanar lost its fair use defense to CBS and Paramount’s allegations of copyright infringement.

Peters' Statement

Peters’ official statement glossed over the heavy blow federal Judge R. Gary Klausner dealt to his case by focusing on Axanar’s prospects at the next level in the federal legal system — the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Depending on the outcome of the trial, Axanar may choose to appeal the verdict to the Ninth Circuit, where [Axanar attorney] Erin Ranahan is 5-0. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is also known to favor artist rights. So the story of Axanar continues …1)

FACT CHECK is an AxaMonitor series examining claims made with regard to the Axanar case, chiefly Alec Peters’ blog posts, interviews and public announcements. Read the series »

The Real Record of the Ninth Circuit

The Ninth Circuit is famously known as the most liberal circuit in the United States, with most of its judges appointed by Democratic presidents.

Back in September 2016, Peters had already begun to assess Axanar's chances at appeal:

This case is being held in Southern California, and if it gets appealed it’ll get appealed to the Ninth Circuit – one of the most liberal circuits in the country, and pro-artists’ rights. Even if we were to lose at trial, an appeal would likely be very positive for us.

Most Liberal?

However, the “most liberal circuit” characterization is not based on fact. It’s a longstanding trope of the conservative media that is largely based on the number of Ninth Circuit cases that have been reversed by the Supreme Court. But that has more to do with the disproportionate number of cases heard by the Ninth Circuit — which covers nine states and about 20 percent of the U.S. population — than the ideological inclinations of the judges who sit on its bench.

Axanar defendant Alec Peters

The Biggest Circuit

One consequence of the Ninth Circuit’s size is that it has 29 full-time judges — far more than any other circuit (the next largest has only 17). There are also “senior judges” who continue to work part-time. Currently, there are 25 full-time judges, 19 part-time judges, and 4 full-time vacancies. Additionally, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor occasionally sits in on Ninth Circuit cases.

How the Court Hears Appeals

Appeals are usually heard by randomly selected three-judge panels. So there’s a current pool of 45 judges who could be assigned to a potential Axanar appeal (not including any potential Trump appointments to fill the four vacancies). Therefore, while it’s true a majority of these judges were appointed by Democratic presidents, that does not in and of itself guarantee a “liberal” panel for a particular case.

Pro-Artist or Anti-Corporate?

Peters’ assertion that the Ninth Circuit is “pro-artists’ rights” doesn’t appear to be based on any real data. The Ninth Circuit enforces the same copyright laws as every other circuit. If the court were “pro-artist,” wouldn’t that favor stronger copyright protections? Perhaps Peters meant to say the Ninth Circuit was anti-corporation, but that isn’t borne out by data either.

The Data on Appeals

Peters claimed: “Even if we were to lose at trial, an appeal would likely be very positive for us.”

But the truth is that appeals generally don’t favor the party appealing. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts tracks this data, and according to the most recent figures appeals decided between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, the Ninth Circuit its reversed its trial courts’ “other private civil” decisions only 16.3 percent of the time. That refers to appeals in civil cases where the federal government or a prison inmate was not a party.2)

While this is a higher reversal rate than most circuits, it still means there’s a roughly 85 percent chance the Ninth Circuit would affirm a jury verdict in favor of CBS and Paramount.

Axanar attorney Erin Ranahan

Ranahan's 5-0 Record

Peters’s statement touted its attorney Ranahan’s successful “5-0 record” of appeals before the Ninth Circuit. AxaMonitor‘s examination of court records found the five cases, but in none of them was she “counsel of record,” the lead attorney who actually argued the case. And two of those cases were voluntarily dismissed before the Ninth Circuit issued a decision.

Appellate Cases

Ranahan’s five appellate cases do not evince the clear-cut victory streak claimed by Peters:

  • Graham-Sult v. Clainos
    Ranahan and her firm represented a group of defendants in a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement among other claims. While a Ninth Circuit panel affirmed large portions of the trial court’s decision in favor of the defendants, it actually reversed the dismissal of the copyright infringement claim, meaning Ranahan and her colleagues lost that part of the appeal.
  • UMG Recordings v. Shelter Capital Partners
    Ranahan and her firm successfully defended a website accused of copyright infringement by Universal Music Group. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment to the defendants. The decision was based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is not applicable to the Axanar case.
  • American Bullion, Inc. v. Regal Assets, LLC
    This was a false advertising case that did not involve copyright infringement. Ranahan entered an appearance in the case nine days before the parties agreed to dismiss the appeal.
  • Henderson v. The J.M. Smucker Company
    This was another false advertising case (actually, a denial of a class action certification) that was dismissed before the Ninth Circuit heard formal arguments.
  • Nafal v. Carter
    This was a lawsuit brought against several dozen defendants over alleged copyright infringement in a Jay-Z song. Ranahan defended a foreign company that was one of the defendants dismissed from the case early in the proceedings. Although the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision granting all defendants summary judgment, it appears Ranahan did not actively participate in this appeal.

Axanar's Chances

In the three cases actually decided by the Ninth Circuit, Ranahan’s client had prevailed in the lower court, meaning her record is for cases in which her firm had prevailed at trial, not cases where she sought to overturn the lower-court decision — statistically, a much more difficult proposition.


Keywords

1)
Statement by Alec Peters, Fan Film Factor blog, 1/4/17.