SRF Claims Ananda Infringed Its Copyrights
SRF considers itself the guardian of Paramhansa Yogananda’s spiritual heritage. They want complete control of his writings, all photographs of him and recordings of his voice. SRF believes that Yogananda intended for SRF to have this control in order to ensure the “purity” of the teachings.
Many of Yogananda’s writings are now in the public domain
Control, however, is slipping away from them. The passage of time, and the boomerang effect of this lawsuit, has already brought much of Yogananda’s writings and many photographs of him, into the public domain. (See Out-of-Print Writings) Books by Yogananda are freely available now from sources other than SRF.
For example, Ananda publishes the first edition of Autobiogrpahy of a Yogi, since SRF’s later editions includes many changes made after Yogananda died.
There are two versions of Yogananda’s commentary on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: SRF’s Wine of the Mystics, edited by Mrinalini Mata and Ananda’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained, edited by Swami Kriyananda. The two books are so different that it is hard to believe they come from the same original material.
Only SRF has published Yogananda’s commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita because the bulk of those commentaries and also those on the Bible are still in dispute in this lawsuit. Neither SRF nor Ananda has published the unedited versions of these works, except in the SRF magazines, because Yogananda himself asked that the commentaries be edited before publication in book form.
Much of Paramhansa Yogananda’s writings, and the commentaries in particular, are scripture to his devotees, and may someday be scripture to the whole world. Upon completing his Gita commentary Yogananda exclaimed joyously, “A new scripture has been born. Millions will find God through this book! Not just thousands. Millions! I know, I have seen it.” (The Path)
Who can edit Yogananda’s writings?
SRF feels that Mrinalini Mata is the only one chosen by Yogananda to edit his works. Kriyananda knows this is not true, since Yogananda instructed him to work on writing and editing. SRF’s insistence that there can only be one version of Yogananda’s books is like saying there should be only one version of the Bible.
It is folly, in any case, to think one disciple, or even one group of disciples can encompass the totality of a master’s teachings. An avatar needs many instruments to convey to the world even a fraction of the divine truth he came to bring. This has been the yogic tradition for millennia. Great masters inspire many disciples, each of whom, in turn, inspires others. In this way, a great teachings spreads. (See Why three versions of the Rubaiyat?)
What did Yogananda intend?
There has already been an enormous amount of litigation in this section of the case, and key issues are still unresolved. In fact, this is the only part of the lawsuit still alive. But it is a humdinger.
Since neither party in this case is the actual author of the works in question, everything hinges on what Paramhansa Yogananda did during his lifetime and what the courts determine he intended to have happen after his passing. Relevant events took place 50 to 75 years ago and the few eyewitnesses left alive are getting on in years. Consider the fact that the author is a God-realized master, and you can see that the case is unconventional, to say the least.
Many of the works at issue are from SRF magazines, copyrighted by SRF. It turns out, however, that when an author or photographer gives his work over to a magazine to be published, it cannot be assumed that he has also given over his personal copyright on that work. The magazine publisher owns the composite, but not necessarily the individual articles and photographs within it. The publisher needs proof that those rights have also been transferred. Therein lies the tale.
SRF’s claims against Ananda
SRF charged Ananda with infringing copyrights on:
(1) Eight photographs of Paramhansa Yogananda, two photographs of Rajarsi Janakananda, and eight pieces of written material ranging in length from one sentence to three paragraphs published in Clarity Magazine. (Clarity is Ananda’s own publication. During the time referred to in this lawsuit, it was sent to members, donors, and others already on Ananda’s mailing list, six to twelve times a year. Subscriptions, including free ones, topped out at 840.)
(2) Eleven chants from the book Cosmic Chants either included in an audio tape recorded and sold by Ananda or quoted in Clarity magazine.
(3) Six recorded lectures by Paramhansa Yogananda reproduced and sold by Ananda. (In 1985, when Ananda was given these tapes by a non-SRF source, no tapes like them were available to the public, even though SRF has a vast archive of such tapes. After Ananda began to sell these, SRF also published some of the same recordings, with better sound quality. Ananda then withdrew some and continued to sell others.)
(4) Numerous articles from SRF magazines containing Paramhansa Yogananda’s commentaries on the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita. (Yogananda completed his commentary on the Gita in 1951; SRF finally published a highly edited version of it 45 years later in 1995. His Bible commentary has yet to be published. Both commentaries, however, were serialized in SRF magazines. In 1978, Shivani Lucki, an Ananda member, began mimeographing the commentaries from old SRF magazines, spiral binding them, and selling them at cost to Ananda members.)
Many different legal arguments have been presented. Let’s go through them step by step.
Copyrights had lapsed
In 1991, while doing research for this case, one of Ananda’s attorneys, discovered that SRF had allowed the copyrights to lapse on all SRF magazines published before January 1943. SRF did not charge Ananda with infringing any magazine articles prior to this date, even though many had been included in the commentaries Shivani printed and distributed, so SRF was clearly aware of the lapse.
The attorney also discovered that the copyrights had lapsed on all books written by Paramhansa Yogananda and published prior to 1936. Perhaps SRF thought their copyrights on later editions also protected the earlier ones, but they did not.
When Ananda presented this information to Judge Garcia, SRF conceded that, in fact, many of Yogananda’s books, writings, and photographs of him had passed into the public domain. While this had no effect on the case at hand, it was a great discovery for those who favor free access especially to Paramhansa Yogananda’s original writings.
The irony is, that if SRF had not sued Ananda we would never have found out.
Copyrights improperly renewed
When an author copyrights a book in his own name, and then dies before the first term of that copyright has expired, according to the law, only the author’s heirs or the executor of his estate can renew that copyright. When Yogananda died, no will was presented, so there was no legal executor. And direct disciples, although perhaps more truly the heirs of a great master than his blood relatives, are still not recognized as heirs by a court of law.
Nonetheless, SRF had renewed copyrights that fell into this category, specifically the 1938 edition of Cosmic Chants, which is a part of this case. Ananda presented the facts to the judge, who ruled in Ananda’s favor, and ordered the copyright canceled.
SRF appealed, but the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision. So the 1938 edition of Cosmic Chants went into the public domain and was dropped from the case.
Autobiography of a Yogi was never a part of this case. But the same logic that put Cosmic Chants into the public domain, also applied to the first edition of the Autobiogrpahy. So Ananda made plans to publish it. SRF challenged Ananda in court, but the judge ruled in Ananda’s favor and now the first edition is freely available. Once again, the irony: SRF’s sues to gain control and ends up losing even more.
Who took the photographs of Yogananda?
SRF claimed ownership of all the photographs at issue, saying they were taken by SRF employees and therefore belong to SRF itself. On closer examination, however, this claim breaks down. Mere possession of a photograph, or even the negative, does not confer ownership.
One photo SRF claimed to own is a companion to the more famous “Last Smile.” Both were taken by Arthur Say, a professional newspaper photographer who attended the banquet at the Biltmore on March 7, 1952. There is no record that Say ever transferred ownership of the photograph to SRF.
SRF lost the rights to five others because they were never able to prove who took them. That left four photographs in dispute.
Ananda Mata submitted a declaration claiming these four had been taken by SRF employees: three by a man named Clifford Frederick, one by Durga Mata. Everything hinged on her declaration.
The problem was, Ananda Mata’s declaration about these four photographs was directly contradicted by her own testimony in an earlier deposition. Judge Garcia declared Ananda Mata untrustworthy as a witness, and for this, and other reasons, he ruled that SRF had no valid claim on the remaining four.
The Appeals Court, however, ruled that as matter of procedure in a Summary Judgment motion, the judge is not allowed to weigh the evidence or determine the credibility of any witness. Only a jury can do that. So the question of the four photographs was remanded back to the lower court for a jury trial.
Ananda Mata, however, is the only witness SRF has brought forth on this issue, and now Ananda has been informed that she is not well enough to appear at trial or even to have her deposition taken. So it remains to be seen how the fate of these photographs will ever be decided.
Yogananda not the guru? Only an employee of SRF?
Startling claims by SRF offered repeatedly in the courts
In copyright law, there is a concept called “corporate body.” This means that a group of people work together to create something, with everyone’s contribution so intermingled that no one person can claim actual authorship.
SRF Claim in Court #1:
Yogananda’s books were written by a group, not the Master alone
SRF claimed that this was the process by which Paramhansa Yogananda’s books were written. His disciples all helped him out to such an extent, that at the end you really couldn’t say that it was Yogananda’s book. This includes his masterpiece Autobiography of a Yogi, and many of his other priceless writings.
SRF Claim in Court #2:
Yogananda was only an employee, following orders
Recognizing that “corporate body” might not be persuasive, SRF also suggested this equally startling alternative. It’s called “work for hire.”
This is when an employee creates something, not from his own inspiration, but because his managers tell him to do it. He works on company time, with company equipment, under the guidance and instruction of the company leaders. Whatever he creates naturally belongs to the company, not to him.
In other words, SRF implied that Paramhansa Yogananda was not the guru of SRF, but merely a paid employee. Therefore everything he wrote belongs to SRF.
To those who revere Yogananda, these claims by SRF are astonishing.
Daya Mata, herself, files declaration in support
SRF’s attorneys offered these arguments not once only, but many times. And no less than Daya Mata herself, the President of SRF, filed a declaration under penalty of perjury in support of these arguments.
SRF monks and nuns sat in the courtroom and listened to their own attorneys make these blasphemous assertions and accepted them calmly, without protest.
Both Judge Garcia in the Federal Court and the Federal Appeals Court rejected SRF’s arguments. Still, SRF persisted. The last of their numerous briefs went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally closed the discussion by refusing to hear the case.
Did Yogananda give everything to SRF?
SRF has one further argument which it has asserted continuously. It’s very simple: SRF alleges that Paramhansa Yogananda intended for SRF to have everything—magazine articles, sound recordings, photographs, published and unpublished works—everything at issue in this lawsuit and everything not at issue as well.
Their principal alleged proof is a document that has come to be known as the “1935 Assignment.”
When Paramhansa Yogananda left for India in 1935 apparently he wasn’t certain that he would ever return, so he put his affairs in order. In a few paragraphs he described certain of his tangible goods and assigned ownership to SRF. Of course, Yogananda did return. But he never executed another written assignment.
SRF asserts that the 1935 Assignment gives SRF ownership of everything in existence in1935, and all of Yogananda’s assets, tangible or intangible, acquired after 1935 until the day he died.
Yogananda owned many things
Ananda responded by pointing out that, in fact, Paramhansa Yogananda owned many things after 1935, including copyrights. Even in the last year of his life he registered copyrights in his own name. Yogananda knew his life was coming to an end. It would have been so simple, if he wanted SRF to have everything, to register those copyrights in SRF’s name, or to make a new assignment conveying the copyrights to SRF. But he did neither of those things.
The judge rules, the Appeals Court decides
Judge Garcia ruled in favor of Ananda. The 1935 Assignment, he said, transferred only those assets in existence at the time it was executed. It applied to nothing created or acquired from 1935 until Yogananda’s death in 1952. SRF appealed the decision. The Appeals Court agreed with Judge Garcia: the 1935 Assignment did not transfer any assets acquired after 1935.
However, the Appeals Court still remanded a few issues back to the lower court for a jury trial. Not because the Court felt SRF would win. In fact, the Court said “While a jury may conclude that on balance the evidence demonstrates that Yogananda had no intent to transfer to SRF his common law copyrights,” but simply because, for various legal reasons, SRF has a right to present its case to a jury.
Here are the copyright claims that now have to be decided in a jury trial: (1) four photographs of Paramhansa Yogananda, (2) six recorded lectures, (3) numerous articles from old SRF magazines that include the bulk of Yogananda’s commentaries on the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita.
From the beginning of this lawsuit, SRF has chosen to litigate almost every issue to its maximum potential. This has vastly extended the duration, and greatly increased the cost of this lawsuit. There is a great disparity between the financial resources of the parties—SRF is a wealthy organization, Ananda is not. This strategy, therefore, works to SRF’s advantage by creating a tremendous financial strain on Ananda.
SRF has now retained attorney Michael Flynn and his firm of Flynn, Sheridan & Stillman to represent them for this next phase. Flynn represented Anne-Marie Bertolucci in a sexual harassment suit against Ananda described in Part IV: “Does SRF have unclean hands?” Our experience of Flynn tells us that the SRF lawsuit is about to get even more unpleasant.
Apparently, Flynn and company have also made an unpleasant impression on a number of judges. In an article in “The Recorder,” an American Lawyer Media Publication, dated Monday, October 16, 2000, Judge Judith McConnell, of San Diego, says the case presented by Flynn’s firm was the “most ‘insulting’ she had ever dealt with.” She then recused herself—which means to voluntarily withdraw as presiding judge because, for one reason or another, the judge knows he cannot be impartial in his judgement.
According to “The Recorder,” three other judges have also recused themselves from cases litigated by Flynn’s firm. “Judges Thomas Murphy, Robert O’Neill and John Einhorn have also recused themselves—Einhorn telling [an attorney from Flynn’s firm] in court ‘In my more than 30 years as a trial lawyer and as a Superior Court judge, I have never witnessed such misleading, manipulative, distorted, deceptive, vitriolic action by any lawyer or law firm.’”
Trial scheduled, then delayed
Judge Garcia schedule the trial for August 13, 2001. SRF repeatedly tried to get Ananda to agree to postpone the trial. Ananda refused. We’ve been in this eleven years, we want it over. The longer it goes on, the more it costs. It’s that simple.
Ultimately, however, SRF got its way. An unusually large number of last-minute discovery disputes and pre-trial motions—mostly generated by SRF—finally forced the court to postpone the trial date, which is what SRF had been trying to make happen all along.
On April 19, 2001, the court ordered that all dates be vacated. The trial date was cancelled and has not been re-set.
Once again, the battle is on with no end in sight. (Note: This article was written before the trial; for details of how the case ended, see other articles on this site.)