In Part 1, I explained what a motion in limine is, so at least I don’t have to go through that again! And in Part 2, I took a look at the ten motions that the plaintiffs filed asking the judge in the AXANAR lawsuit to exclude specific evidence from trial and prevent certain key witnesses from testifying in front of the jury.
Today, it’s the defense attorneys’ turn under the FAN FILM FACTOR microscope. And if you think I’m just going to back up Team Axanar on everything and let ’em glide through this analysis unscathed, then you’re gonna be very surprised. I call ’em like I see ’em, and I freely admit that some of what the defense is asking the judge to exclude is pretty ballsy…in one case almost to the point of comedy relief (trying to exclude the words “Star Trek“–yep). On the other hand, they also make a number of very solid points and might actually have a chance of winning a few.
And in the end, that’s what challenging evidence and witness testimony is all about. Swing for the bleachers. The worst that happens (assuming you don’t piss off the judge too much) is that he says no and you just have to work a little harder during trial. But the rewards can be great if you do manage to take a key piece off the chess board.
Pat 2’s document with all ten motions from the plaintiffs was a whopping 63 pages! But the defense has gone even MORE whoppy with 73 pages…even though they only have nine motions. In other words, they wrote more for each one (meaning I’ve probably gotta write more, too!).
Here’s a PDF document with all nine of the defense’s in limine motions in it:
Now let’s take a look at what the defense team doesn’t want the jury to see or know about. As I did in Part 2, I’m going to go through each motion and provide an overview of why the defense believes each item should be excluded…and also how that item could potentially hurt the defendants if it gets in front of the jury.
1. Any mention that Alec Peters tried to withhold evidence during the discovery phase of the case
Reason(s) the defense gives for excluding it – Things heated up pretty fast during discovery when the plaintiffs began to complain that Alec Peters had failed to produce all of his e-mails and texts and social media postings relevant to this case. In fact, they even filed massive 122-page ex parte (emergency) application for order with Magistrate Judge Eick asking him to order Alec Peters sit for additional deposition questions about his missing e-mails (which was so ordered).
However, the plaintiffs now had a piece of juicy red meat and were serving it up in generous portions every chance they could. The plaintiffs continued to bring up these so-called discovery “violations” of Alec Peters during the additional deposition questioning of him (they even asked him while he sat there to take out his cell phone and show them his texts!), and then later in their motion for summary judgment. And one would assume that plaintiffs plan to bring the point up again in front of the jury…likely implying that Alec Peters was trying to gain an advantage in the case by withholding or suppressing evidence.
The only problem is: he didn’t. The court never ruled that Alec Peters withheld evidence and never ordered that he turn over additional e-mails, texts, or Facebook posts. Indeed, there was, arguably, more legal abuse done by the plaintiffs (who also withheld e-mails and text messages–Paramount delivered ZERO e-mails during discovery!) than by the defense. But the defense at least complained about it before the deadline rather than waiting until after the deadline and just three days before the entire discovery period ended. You can read more about those sehnanigans here.)
The reasons the defense gives for requesting the judge preclude the plaintiffs from mentioning any alleged discovery violations by Alec Peters during the trial are pretty obvious. First, any attempt to paint Alec Peters in such a negative light will unquestionably prejudice the jury and taint their opinion of him. Also, the information is simply not relevant to the case. Alec Peters has been accused of copyright infringement, not of withholding evidence. The latter accusation was already dismissed by Magistrate Judge Eick during the discovery phase.
Reason(s) it could hurt the defendants’ case – Well, I think I just said it. Juries likely won’t trust a guy whom they’re led to believe withheld evidence for his own advantage in the case. And since Alec Peters actually did no such thing (since it was actually his attorneys who turned over the e-mails), it’s a false accusation anyway.
2. Any “homework” that wasn’t turned in on time by the plaintiffs
Reason(s) the defense gives for excluding it – Lawsuits are carefully choreographed dances with very specific deadlines that must be adhered to. And this isn’t just because judges don’t like waiting for procrastinators. The scheduling of deadlines is intended to make things as fair as possible for both sides. The legal system does NOT appreciate surprises. Whenever one side brings up something–a complaint, a fact, an opinion, a witness, a piece of evidence, etc.–the other side is given a chance to examine it and potentially challenge it. When something is introduced at the last second or past a deadline for submission, then the opposing side is not given adequate opportunity to review, analyze, or investigate. And that’s not fair. And thus (quoting here from the defense motion):
…a party who fails to make a required initial disclosure (such as disclosing witnesses likely to have information on key topics or producing documents they intend to rely upon at trial) “is not allowed to use that information or witness to supply evidence on a motion, at a hearing, or at trial” unless the party’s failure was “substantially justified” or “harmless.”
So here’s what happened. The discovery period ended on November 2. That was the cut-off for placing anything else into evidence. It was, for all intents and purposes, the “speak now or forever hold your peace” point of no return. The defense followed this rule. The plaintiffs…well, not so much.
On October 28 (just five days before the “speak now or forever hold your peace” deadline), the plaintiffs surprised the defense team by introducing a whole bunch of new exhibits and information that had never been heard or seen before by the court or the defense team. This included (among other things):
- The Star Trek novel Garth of Izar
- The Star Trek novel Strangers from the Sky
- The FASA Star Trek Role Playing Game supplement The Four Years War
Two and a half weeks later (after the discovery deadline had passed) the plaintiffs also suddenly declared John Van Citters of CBS licensing to be an expert witness. Now, in my opinion, John does, in fact, know a LOT about Star Trek. So do I. The difference is that the defense told the plaintiffs about me long before November 2. The defense only found out that John would be an expert witness two weeks after the cut-off. This did not allow them the opportunity to question him about that alleged “expertise” during deposition…and now it’s too late. In other words, the defense cannot properly prepare to question John Van Citters on the witness stand during the trial because they haven’t discovered enough about his background as an “expert.”
Likewise, given only a few days until the deadline and because all of the witness depositions had already been held, the defense team couldn’t properly analyze or investigate the two novels and the one supplement during the discovery phase. “Can’t they just do it now?” you ask? Yes, but that is still unfair. Had the defense known about these items of evidence with enough time left in the discovery period, they could have asked the “expert” John Van Citters about them…and possibly gotten valuable information to challenge the relevance or admissibility of these literary works. Now they can’t.
The law doesn’t like it when the attorneys don’t get a fair shot to examine evidence and question witnesses before trial…and it’s worse if it seems as though one side is playing dirty pool by trying to ignore rules designed to ensure fairness.
Reason(s) it could hurt the defendants’ case – In the same way that the plaintiffs don’t want jurors to know that a dozen or more other quality Star Trek fan films exist (plus a hundred others of lesser quality), the defense doesn’t want the jurors to know that Garth of Izar appeared anywhere other than one episode back in 1969 or that the Four Years War wasn’t an original idea from Alec Peters (even though you can’t legally copyright an idea). So yes, both sides are trying to hide some “inconvenient” truths from the jury. The only difference is that the plaintiffs did, in fact, screw up by waiting to spring their surprise until after the deadline. And it could come back to bite them plaintiffs in the tushy.
As for John Van Citters, well, any expert witness whose paycheck is signed by the plaintiff is very likely not going to be helpful to the defendant. As such, if the defense can keep John from being called an “expert” and from commenting about how similar Axanar is to Star Trek, well, that takes a valuable piece off the plaintiffs’ side of the chess board. So it’s definitely worth a try because the plaintiffs’ delays make them vulnerable to the argument.
3. Anything that wasn’t in the original amended complaint filed March 11, 2016…like the FASA Role Playing Game
Reason(s) the defense gives for excluding it – Remember how I just said that November 2 was the “speak now or forever hold your peace” deadline? Well, actually, it might have been seven months earlier. Let me ‘splain…
The way copyright law works is that the plaintiff has to tell the defendant exactly what elements of its intellectual property was infringed upon because each violation can carry its own separate penalty (potentially as much as $150,000 per penalty). Then the defendant has a right to address each alleged violation separately. In fact, that’s the reason I listed the amended complaint of March 11 and not the date of the original complaint filed on December 29, 2015. Y’see, the first time CBS and Paramount sued Alec Peters, the complaint was rather sloppily written, just citing “thousands of violations” without specifying what they actually were. That’s why the amended complaint lists 57 specific violations–like Garth and Soval, the USS Enterprise, the Klingon language, Vulcan pointy ears, and (my personal favorite) the triangular shaped medals on the Starfleet dress uniforms.
So, armed with those 57 specific alleged violations, the defense now had something definite to shoot at. And so they went about defending themselves against those specific 57 violations. They went through discovery and deposed witnesses specifically in order to respond to those 57 alleged violations. Then, a month after the defense deposed the two main witnesses who were explaining precisely what Axanar copied (and how)–and just five days before the deadline for the entire discovery period–the plaintiffs suddenly inject this new claim of The Four Years War from the FASA Role Playing Game Supplement. That’s legally a “no-no.” A plaintiff can’t suddenly add a 58th violation at the last minute. Only things that were in the complaint itself count. Otherwise, the defendant isn’t being given a fair chance to form his defense (instead of 7 months, he has just 5 days).
Now, I realize that some of the detractors will bring up something that
The copied copyrighted Star Trek elements include, but are not limited to, those listed below…
Janet then makes the following observation: “And I have no doubt that defense knew this meant the list was not to be considered all-inclusive.”
I’m sure they did, but the law is still very specific and does not allow for “…and the rest” the same way the opening theme song for Gilligan’s Island did. You have to specifically say, “…the Professor and Mary Ann.” The “to be determined” nature of the plaintiff’s “but are not limited to…” clause goes against both the spirit and the letter of the law, as I’ve just explained. The defense must be given the full list of violations from the get-go and not have surprises sprung at the last minute.
Reason(s) it could hurt the defendants’ case – Since this motion targets most of the same items as Motion #2 (with the exception of John Van Citters himself), the potential damage to the defense’s case is essentially the same as I described above. Consider this the “back up” motion…just in case the judge doesn’t grant all or any of Motion #2. This is just an attempt to get him to take a second look because it’s a REALLY important legal point that one side can’t spring something unexpected on the other side at the last minute.
Reason(s) the defense gives for excluding it – Okay, this one isn’t just about triangles. More specifically, the defense doesn’t want the plaintiffs to introduce elements that are in Star Trek but are NOT protectable by copyright. These items include:
- geometric shapes
- words and short phrases
- scènes à faire (scenes that are typical to a genre, like space battles in sci-fi space epics)
- unprotected characters
- elements of works derived from nature, the public domain, or third parties.
In short, the defense is trying (yet again!) to get the judge to throw out many (most, really) of those 57 alleged violations. After all, if the jury is told that Alec Peters violated 57 different copyrights, it’s gonna sound really, REALLY bad and be rather prejudicial against the defendant. But if the jury is told they have to determine whether or not he violated just 6 or 7 copyrights, well, that doesn’t sound nearly as bad now, does it?
I can already hear some of the detractors typing that I’m wrong because the plaintiffs aren’t saying that Alec Peters copied triangles or pointed ears specifically but rather the overall look of Starfleet dress uniforms and the amalgam of Vulcan attributes, which includes pointed ears but also includes a whole bunch of other elements. Well, again, that’s not how copyright law works. Remember the “Stairway to Heaven” infringement case that ended recently (and, coincidentally, was also argued in Judge Klausner’s courtroom)? The jury wasn’t asked to compare all of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” to all of Spirit’s “Taurus.” It was just comparing those two opening riffs…
In the same way, the plaintiffs are required to argue for specific instances of infringement of copyrightable elements. So, for example, if someone used Captain Kirk (who is a registered copyrighted character), that’s fine. It’s a valid alleged violation. But if Captain Kirk is wearing his dress uniform, you don’t get to pile on top of using Kirk the fact that the infringer also used a Starfleet dress uniform with triangular medals. That gets included with the one Kirk violation.
So in Axanar, the dress uniforms weren’t worn by Captain Kirk (a copyrighted character). Instead, they were worn by two original characters (Admiral Ramirez and Admiral Travis). Those characters aren’t copyrighted by the studios (since they’re original), so that leaves the plaintiff suing over just the uniforms and the triangular medals. But as the defense states in their motion…
Under the “useful article” doctrine, clothing cannot be copyrighted except to the extent there are original designs on the clothing that can be separated from the function of the clothing, which is not alleged here…
The U.S. Copyright Office refuses to base copyright registration on simple and “standard ornamentation,” such as “chevron stripes,” “a plain, ordinary cross, “common geometric figures or shapes, or “a standard symbol such as an arrow or a five-pointed star.”
So I’m guessing you can see where the defense is going here. They’ve got a perfectly good reason for getting the judge to toss out things like the logos for the UFP and Klingons along with words and phrases like Andorians, Tellarites, Romulans, Axanar, Archanis IV, Q’onoS, Nausicaa, Rigel, Andoria, Tellar Prime, Vulcans, Klingons, Terra (land), Starship Enterprise, Starfleet, Federation, Starships, Stardate, and Federation or the short phrase “beaming up” (none of which is copyrightable as a word or phrase). They also want the judge to toss out the Klingon language as a violation because it’s an “idea or system” (in this case, a system of communication), which is not copyrightable. And of course, as I discussed in a previous blog, the characters of Soval and Garth of Izar aren’t registered and may not even qualify as protectable.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this one is a bit of a “Hail Mary” pass.
Reason(s) it could hurt the defendants’ case – This isn’t so much a case of the alleged violations hurting the defense. It’s more that if these dozens of allegations are thrown out before the case begins and are recluded from being mentioned, it just makes the job of the defense team a heck of a lot easier! It would also limit the potential damages if Alec Peters loses because the verdict award is based on a certain penalty amount per violation. The fewer violations, the lower the total.
Okay, let’s pause there…’cause I’ve still got FIVE MORE motions to get through! Yep, the defense team wrote a LOT!
Next time, we’ll finish up the rest of the in limine motions, including everyone’s favorite: “You can’t actually say the words “Star Trek” in this case!” Let’s see how the defense tries to justify THAT!