Appeals Court Re-Opens the SRF Lawsuit

From Catherine Van Houten

Development Director, Ananda Church of Self-Realization

September 5, 2000

Dear Friend,

In our last legal update letter to you in December 1999, we were joyfully anticipating the end of the “legal chapter” in Ananda’s history.

Though, we’re still dealing with residual debt from ten years of lawsuits, we’re experiencing an unprecedented response in virtually every area of Ananda’s outreach. Our work of bringing the teachings of Self-realization to others is booming everywhere: the Ananda branch communities and mandirs, the new East Coast center, the Kriya ministry, the Healing Prayer ministry, The Expanding Light programs, Living Wisdom Schools, our retreat center in Assisi, Italy, and Ananda Meditation Groups worldwide. All have experienced an avalanche of blessings, creativity and expansion!

However, recent decisions by the 9th Circuit Appellate Court in the lawsuit initiated by Self-Realization Fellowship have given SRF another legal “straw” to cling to in their obsession to claim sole possession of Paramhansa Yogananda’s spiritual legacy. With the possibility of new legal activity before us, we want to bring you completely up to date.

The Issues Taken Up on Appeal by SRF

In February 2000 the Appellate Court heard oral argument from both sides in SRF’s appeal of Judge Garcia’s rulings on their copyright claims. You’ll remember that Judge Garcia had ruled in Ananda’s favor on all of SRF’s copyright infringement claims. In what must be record time, we received the Appellate Court’s written ruling at the end of March.

In reaching its decision the Appellate Court first considered SRF’s four main arguments as to why SRF should own all copyrights for works authored by Yogananda:

1) “Work-for-Hire”: SRF claimed that Paramhansa Yogananda had produced his many works, not because of his own motivation, but at SRF’s “instance and expense,” and as SRF’s employee. The Appellate Court affirmed Judge Garcia’s ruling that there was no evidence of SRF’s ridiculous claim that they supervised and controlled Yogananda’s creation of his works.

2) Corporate Body: SRF also claimed that Yogananda created his works as part of a corporate body (that is, SRF), not as a single individual. The Appellate Court again affirmed Garcia’s decision and ruled that the corporate body doctrine did not apply to situations in which a single, identifiable individual created the works in question.

3) 1935 Assignment: In addition SRF claimed that Yogananda’s 1935 assignment, transferring certain items to SRF, covered works created by Yogananda not only before 1935, but also after that date. The Appellate Court agreed with Judge Garcia’s decision that Yogananda’s 1935 written assignment did not give SRF any rights to Yogananda’s post-1935 works.

4) Informal Assignment: However, the 9th Circuit reversed Judge Garcia on the question of whether SRF had introduced enough evidence to have a jury trial on whether Yogananda had informally assigned his post-1935 works to SRF. An “informal assignment,” as defined by law, is not in writing, but is inferred rather from all the facts and circumstances, mainly from Yogananda’s own conduct.

The Ninth Circuit concluded by saying that while a jury might “well conclude” that the evidence shows that Yogananda had no such intent, SRF had presented enough evidence to at least be allowed a jury trial on this issue. Judge Garcia had looked at SRF’s evidence and found it too weak to warrant a jury trial.

After it had considered the validity of these four arguments advanced by SRF, the Appellate Court went on to address various works by Yogananda in light of its decision that SRF might have a viable theory of copyright ownership based on the doctrine of informal or implied assignment.

What Is the Impact of the Ruling?

In laymen’s language, what does this ruling mean? The ruling does not affect Ananda’s right to continue using numerous works by Yogananda that have passed into the public domain because the copyrights were not renewed by SRF. These works, all published before 1942, include the early editions of The Science of Religion, Scientific Healing Affirmations, Songs of the Soul, Metaphysical Meditations, and The Law of Success. They also include the Yogoda Lessons, some Praecepta Lessons, magazine articles and small monographs. Among the magazine articles are many of Master’s articles on the Bhagavad Gita and The Second Coming of Christ. (Only the Bhagavad Gita and Second Coming articles published after 1942 were part of SRF’s appeal.)

The Ninth Circuit confirmed the district court ruling that Ananda relied on in publishing the first edition of Autobiography of a Yogi. We are thus free to continue publishing this spiritual treasure. We are also free to use and quote from the 1938 edition of Cosmic Chants, as well as the 1929, 1935, and 1949 editions of Whispers from Eternity.

Using this same analysis of informal assignment, the Ninth Circuit reversed Judge Garcia on the sound recordings of Yogananda’s talks. Therefore Ananda’s right to sell two tapes of talks by Yogananda may also be decided by a jury. This, too, is a vitally important issue: Are sound recordings of Yogananda’s voice æ no matter where he spoke or what the occasion æ also to be the exclusive property of SRF?

Also at stake is the right to quote from, or reprint works by Yogananda which appeared in the SRF magazines after 1942. These would include some of Yogananda’s commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and his Second Coming of Christ articles. Every devotee of this path of Self-realization will immediately recognize these as a core part of Master’s written legacy to us all.

There were also six photographs of Yogananda involved in the appeal. The Ninth Circuit affirmed our right to use 4 of the 6 photos, because SRF did not present any evidence showing that it “authored” the photos. (By extension, this ruling also covers the photo we call “The Last Smile.”) The two remaining photos – one of Yogananda, and the other of Rajarsi sitting in the lotus posture – would be a very small part of any jury decision. Ownership of the photos does not involve the issues of implied assignment.

At first glance the impact of a jury ruling in SRF’s favor may seem limited when looked at “work by work.” However, the impact of such a decision would set a very dangerous precedent when we consider what SRF is still seeking to establish concerning Yogananda’s intent: that SRF is the sole possessor of his spiritual legacy, including his writings, and that they alone may represent him as his spiritual heirs.

SRF filed a petition for rehearing after the appeals court ruling. This meant that the three judge panel who originally decided the appeal (as described above) were asked to reconsider their decision. If they declined to do so, then SRF asked that its petition for rehearing be sent to all 20 or more judges of the Court of Appeals for what is called an “en banc” review.

In early August we learned that this petition had been denied, both by the three judge panel and by the full en banc court.

What Happens Now?

The Ninth Circuit will now send the issue of informal assignment (or implied assignment) back to the district court. There will be a status conference near the end of October with Judge Garcia presiding, since he is the judge who originally heard the case at the district level. Judge Garcia, who is now on “senior status,” can, at his own discretion, choose whether or not he will be the presiding judge should SRF push for a jury trial.

At this October status conference, Ananda and SRF may be asked to again enter into settlement discussions. All previous settlement talk—most of them initiated by Ananda—have been unsuccessful. In every settlement effort, SRF has demonstrated that their only understanding of the word “compromise” is that Ananda should cede back nearly everything which we had won resoundingly in the courtroom.

If settlement proves, once again, to be fruitless, Judge Garcia will also decide before trial whether or not to allow further “discovery,” or gathering of additional evidence.

The history of this case has shown that SRF will leave no stone unturned in its quest for exclusivity. We must embrace the likelihood that SRF will choose to take this issue to trial by jury. It seems likely that the soonest that a trial date would be set is six months from the status conference.

Again, the main issue left to be decided is whether Yogananda informally assigned certain of his post-1935 works to SRF. Also at issue, the ownership of two photos, which does not involve the question of Yogananda’s intent.

It is very important to understand that the fact that the appeals court remanded this issue back for possible trial by jury does not in any way reflect their belief that SRF should or will win this issue. The court based its ruling to remand it to trial on fairly technical requirements relating to evidence.

Should Ananda Simply Give Up the Remaining Issues?

“The First Law of God is loyalty,” Yogananda said repeatedly. Much is still at stake in this final stage of SRF’s suit against us. We did not initiate the battle, but once forced to fight, we have behaved in as principled and dharmic way as possible, out of loyalty to Truth, out of our sincere belief that Master himself wishes us to fight for universal access to the timeless teachings he brought to the West.

All of us were hopeful that this battle was done. However, it seems that Master wants every wisp of challenge to Ananda’s and others’ rights to quote from, edit, and otherwise disseminate his teachings cleared up now, and cleared up conclusively: there are to be no areas of potential contention left for another generation of disciples to struggle with. After a trial by jury on this relatively limited, yet vitally important issue, there is nowhere for SRF to take its case, except to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would have no reason to hear it since it presents no new challenges to Constitutional law.

As a long-time friend and supporter of Ananda, you are also aware that we emerged just last December from Chapter 11 Reorganization. We have been gradually paying down debt, which at its peak included $3.2 million in residual legal debt, plus the constantly accruing interest we’re forced to pay on that amount. Ananda has remained faithful to our court-mandated pay-out plan, which honors 100% of our debt. Obviously, a jury trial would be another financial strain, but we know that Ananda’s future is secure –not so much by money in the bank, as by the spirit of service and devotion to God and Guru which permeates every part of this work.

We ask for your prayers, your continued financial support, and whatever other affirmative energy you wish to offer, that God’s will be made manifest in the legal events of the coming months. We know that you will be interested in being kept abreast of new developments. With the case active once again, we plan more frequent legal update letters than in these past two years when SRF’s appeal was pending.

We especially want to offer deepest thanks to the many of you who have been giving, either through a regular pledge, or occasional, very welcome gifts to the legal fund. May you feel in your heart the deep blessings of the Masters. You are among the spiritual heroes who are helping preserve those ideals of Yogananda which Ananda seeks to express: World Brotherhood Colonies, a life of single-pointed dedication to God and Guru by people from all walks of life, and an outreach ministry which empowers and trains every sincere disciple to be a vital channel for Master’s vibrations.

In divine love and friendship,

Catherine Van Houten
For Ananda Church of Self-Realization

P.S. Please let us hear from you, in whatever way you feel to respond, using the enclosed card. This seems an appropriate moment to ask if you wish to continue to receive legal update mailings, and to give you some other ways to offer comments and support.