Wave after wave followed upon the success of those first motions. From January through June 1994, we filed four successive motions carving away more of SRF’s remaining case. It started well when, on January 4th, Garcia denied SRF’s motion to reconsider his prior copyright orders, and denied its request to restore the preliminary injunction. Never giving up may not always be a virtue.
Three weeks later Ananda filed another summary adjudication motion addressing some of the few “Remaining Copyright Issues.” Three days after that, on January 27, we followed up with a motion to invalidate the copyrights that SRF claimed in Yogananda’s “posthumous works”—works where SRF registered the first copyright after March 7, 1952. This category of publications had been excluded from the first copyright motion, and it was time to start wrapping up loose ends. That February Garcia granted these motions as well. We rolled from win to win.
On April 22, 1994, Ananda filed its sixth summary adjudication motion, undercutting three more claims: (1) copyrights in nine older photos, (2) SRF’s common law copyrights to things Yogananda wrote but never published, and (3) SRF’s claim that it owned the “name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness” of Yogananda. Grinding away, claim by claim.
As Ananda closed in, SRF had recently articulated another reason why it owned all of Yogananda’s property. It must own Yogananda’s works, including his common law copyrights, because Yogananda could not own them himself. As a sannyasi, Yogananda had taken a “solemn vow” of poverty, that renounced all property ownership, such that Yogananda could no longer legally own property. In addition, he had repeatedly confirmed, through his assignments and talks, that he had given away all of his property and currently owned “nothing.” Because he had given all his stuff to SRF, the argument went, it now owned everything he would otherwise have owned himself, had he not taken that solemn vow. Ananda responded that Yogananda had taken only an “informal vow” of poverty, not some total renunciation of property like you might find among cloistered monks in a hilltop abbey. Moreover, SRF’s own documents showed, and its own arguments claimed, that Yogananda did indeed own property after taking his vow of renunciation. SRF claimed that Yogananda gave SRF all of his property in the 1935 Assignment and through the two wills. But if Yogananda could not own property after taking his vows in 1915, then he could not have owned the property SRF claims he subsequently donated to it. SRF’s arguments no longer seemed to need factual support or even internal consistency.
SRF had previously introduced the 1935 General Assignment, signed by Yogananda days before his return to India, and we now raised the two wills. These documents showed that Yogananda thought he owned and managed his own property, up until the time of his passing. SRF pointed to the many times that Yogananda said he owned nothing, and encouraged donors to give their money to SRF, as he had done. But Yogananda said many things. Perhaps he spoke metaphorically. Perhaps his comments were meant as spiritual affirmations. Perhaps, as a guru, he told different people what they each needed to hear, based on their progress along the path. Who knows? Undisputable evidence showed, however, that Yogananda thought he owned personal property, and that did not legally, technically, or actually, give all of those assets to SRF.
SRF also argued that Yogananda had given SRF all of his assets “by implication.” There was no express transfer of all of Yogananda’s property, nothing in writing that actually gave SRF what it claimed to have. SRF inferred a transfer of all of those common law copyrights because of Yogananda’s statements about owning nothing and giving everything to SRF. But the clincher was that SRF possessed the original manuscripts of Yogananda’s unpublished works. Yogananda’s manuscripts, as well as original tape recordings and photograph negatives, were all safely ensconced in SRF’s vault.
The question of copyright assignment now became one of law: was it legally possible for Yogananda to transfer his rights in unpublished works by mere implication? If an express assignment, a writing of some kind, was required, then Ananda would necessarily win on all of the common law copyrights. If, however, it was legally possible for Yogananda to give away his copyrights through his actions without a written document saying so, then SRF must be given a chance to convince a jury that Yogananda did just that. A guru’s plan for his mission would be decided by a vote of strangers, based on snippets of talks, and phrases cut from magazines.
The technical and draconian 1909 Copyright Act provided numerous opportunities for a copyright holder to lose its rights. If you failed to renew on time, you lost your rights. If the wrong person filed the application for renewal, you lost your rights. And assignments had to be in writing. We thought a similarly strict rule should apply to common law copyrights. Under the 1909 Act, a statutory copyright arose only when a work was first published. Prior to publication, there were no statutory protections. Instead, state law provided for a “common law copyright” that protected a work before it was published, and lasted for only as long as it remained unpublished. The initial common law copyright was owned by the author of the work. Like other personal property, a common law copyright could be sold or transferred to someone else. We thought common law rights might be somewhat more flexible than their statutory counterpart, but the law was far from clear. One District Court case in Arizona went our way and held that something written was required. The judge’s order made a lot of sense. Assignments should be in writing and state clearly what is being assigned. Only in this way could you avoid both an inadvertent transfer and confusion as to what was assigned.
SRF put much stock in Yogananda’s March 1, 1935 General Assignment, made just before his trip to India and acknowledged before a notary on May 28. This preprinted form, completed by typewriter, stated in part:
For value received, I do hereby sell, assign, transfer, and set over unto Self Realization Fellowship Church the within books, lessons, monthly praeceptum, furnitures, personal properties including shawls, blankets, portable temple of silence, my handwritings, typewriters, mimeograph machine, cooking utensil—and all machinery, icebox, files, victrola, radio, and/or any other personal property which I may own and which is not described or enumerated herein.
The assignment spoke in detail, but only about tangible personal property. It showed no intention to give away intangible rights, wrapped up with those shawls and blankets. It did not speak to future property Yogananda might acquire. Conspicuous by its absence was any reference to Yogananda’s copyrights. We know, however, that Yogananda was familiar with copyrights in those years, and took out many in his own name. SRF now claimed that Yogananda used the sparse language of the Assignment to transfer to it all property rights of every kind, including Yogananda’s “name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness.” Section 990 of the California Civil Code, which first identified these attributes as protectable rights, was not adopted until 1984. I doubt Yogananda had these future intangible rights in mind on the eve of his India trip. There was also a practical problem with SRF’s position. If Yogananda gave his name to SRF in 1935, he would still need to use that name on a daily basis for the rest of his life. So, there must also have been some form of license by which Yogananda received back from SRF the right to use his own name. But, of course, it made no sense to talk about SRF “owning” Yogananda’s name at all. It made even less sense that Yogananda would have given SRF rights in his name just weeks before heading to India.
About this time in 1994 SRF’s legal papers became increasingly shrill and pedantic. They now routinely referred to Ananda’s arguments as “inconceivable” and repeatedly told the court what it “must” do. More than once, SRF lost a good point in its lather. SRF’s papers also began referring to “Sri Daya Mata,” and “Sri Ananda Mata,” but Ananda Mata’s declarations were no longer worth the paper they were perjured on.
In April 1994, SRF tried to stop the slippage by further beefing up its “SRF owns everything” argument. SRF claimed to have just found yet more documents saying that Yogananda owned nothing and had given everything to SRF. Accordingly, SRF asked for judgment (1) on its claims to the “name, voice, signature, photograph, and likeness” of Yogananda and (2) that SRF owned 9 specific photos. SRF’s argument that it owned everything was now supported by an “array of new evidence” that “compels summary judgment for SRF.” We were amazed that SRF kept coming up with more stuff, but it was always more of the same. Now they might point to some bylaw reference that thanked Yogananda for giving everything to SRF. Next they would excerpt some quote from a 1939 newspaper.
SRF timed its motion to be heard on Monday, May 20, 1994, when Ananda’s own motion was to come before Garcia. None of SRF’s “new” evidence added anything, or contradicted Yogananda’s active management of assets in his own name. And these occasional comments did not refute the fact that when Laurie Pratt went to New York in 1944 to negotiate the publication of the Autobiography, she went empowered as Yogananda’s attorney-in-fact. Yogananda knew what he was doing.
SRF’s problem was that its facts rarely supported its case. A famous photograph from one motion, called simply “PY on Boat,” illustrates that underlying problem well. This image shows Yogananda standing on a boat in full sail on the Ganges River in 1935 or 1936. His personal secretary, C. Richard Wright, is with him on the boat, and someone obviously took the photo while standing on the nearby shore. If the photographer’s identify was ever known, by 1990 it had long been forgotten. All we now knew was that somehow Yogananda ended up with a copy of the photo. We do not know if Yogananda was given the negative or just a print, or whether the photographer meant for Yogananda to own the copyright. Upon his return from India in 1936, Yogananda gave SRF all of the personal property he said he had brought back with him, including a print of the photograph.
Over the years, SRF began to think that it owned more than just a photographic souvenir from India. When SRF sued Ananda in 1990 it claimed to own the copyright of the image captured in the “PY on Boat” photograph. Asked to explain exactly how it came to own the copyright, SRF blithely asserted under oath that an “SRF employee” had taken the photo using “SRF equipment.” Pressed for proof, SRF finally admitted that it had no names, no witnesses, no equipment, no actual facts to support its sworn assumptions. Yogananda had not returned to India on SRF business. The two disciples who went with him acted as his personal assistants, not SRF employees. SRF, Inc. had been formed only weeks before Yogananda left for India and had nothing to do with the trip. The Indian homecoming was all about Yogananda and his first organization, Yogoda Sat Sanga. So after all the fuss and bother, it turned out SRF owned only a fading print of an old photograph. The actual copyright was still held by that unknown photographer back in India, or more likely his heirs, who could have sued SRF for infringement. SRF’s claims to the other photos all suffered from these factual infirmities.
On June 6, 1994, Garcia signed the order granting Ananda’s motion on the nine photographs and denying SRF’s motion for summary adjudication. The judge himself seemed eager for an ending. These six months saw SRF’s case implode, and by the time we filed our last motion on February 28, 1997, everyone felt the end approaching. In May 1997 Garcia granted part of another Ananda motion, and then on his own initiative, ruled that SRF did not own Yogananda’s name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness. Judgment waited just weeks away.
Things People Say | 1992–1997
As Ananda’s copyright arguments cut deeper, SRF turned to new more desperate arguments. SRF now asserted that Yogananda had never owned any copyrights in his books because he had written each and every one of them as a “work for hire.” But for Yogananda’s writings to be considered works “for hire,” SRF must have hired Yogananda to write those books. To support its argument SRF now produced a notarized “Voluntary Release” signed by Yogananda on October 20, 1939. In this single page agreement Yogananda renounced and released “any and all claims, if any exist or arise, for my services,” in exchange for one dollar a year. Yogananda’s continued employment was stated to be at will, and he agreed he would never “claim as my own any property or premises of said church.” SRF claimed this document showed Yogananda wrote everything as SRF’s employee, what he wrote was a “work for hire,” and that he had agreed to make no claim against SRF concerning his writings.
The document showed no such thing. It only provided that SRF was not required to pay Yogananda a salary, and that Yogananda would not claim what did not belong to him. SRF could still pay Yogananda a salary if it wanted to, and it did. Yogananda could work outside of SRF, and he did. Yogananda agreed to honor the corporation’s rights in its property, but he did not give away any of his writings or other creative rights. In fact, it was hard to make much sense out of this October 1939 Voluntary Release.
Chowdhury received a certificate in Sanskrit
Nirad Chowdhury received a certificate in Sanskrit from the University of Calcutta, and after wandering as a mendicant, came to the United States in 1919 to study at Harvard and then Berkeley. He met Yogananda in Boston, ran into him again in San Francisco, and soon joined his Yogoda Sat-Sanga organization. Yogananda renamed him Brahmacharee Nerode and placed him in charge of the Detroit Yogoda Center, which he ran for years. Nerode published several of his own original works through the Detroit Center, and was the initial teacher for such SRF luminaries as J. Oliver Black and Florina Darling, later known as Durga Mata.
When Dhirananda exited in 1929 Yogananda dispatched Nerode, then in New York, to run the Mt. Washington headquarters. For the next seven years Nerode, now Sri Nerode, was one of the key “Hindu teachers” associated with Yogananda. On the road after 1932, Nerode lectured and toured back East, traveling with his wife Agnes and their young son Anil in Yogananda’s old “housecar.” They ranged from Minnesota to Florida, Texas to New York, setting up study groups, gathering subscriptions to the Correspondence Course, and urging people to visit Mt. Washington. He returned to California for the first time in years to speak at Yogananda’s January 1937 homecoming celebration. That March, East West Magazine reported that “Sri Nerode alone, during the past few years, has initiated at least ten thousand into the technique of Self-Realization. He has done admirable work.”
But Yogananda had left for India in 1935 without informing Nerode, who learned about the departure from Gyanamata, the former Mrs. Edith Bissett and SRF’s second nun, whom Yogananda placed in charge of Mt. Washington during his absence. And their relationship deteriorated after Yogananda came back from India a Paramhansa. Slights festered into recriminations, and in July 1939 Yogananda cut Nerode’s salary in half. Two months later Yogananda fired him in an unsigned letter on SRF letterhead. Within days Nerode served Yogananda with a written demand for half of the profits from their “Yogoda partnership.” Yogananda wrote back that there was no money to share. Nerode had to understand that they were all in the same boat. Yogananda had nine mouths to feed and “hordes of guests.” Three weeks later, on October 23, 1939, Nerode filed suit asking for five hundred thousand pre-war dollars as damages.
Nerode claimed that on Christmas Eve in 1934, Yogananda entered into an agreement with him to split the profits from the spiritual business. Yogananda’s first campaign manager, Capt. Rashid, had made a similar claim back in 1925. That case quickly settled. This case was another matter. Nerode alleged that their partnership should be dissolved because Yogananda had starting thinking he was God. Worse yet, “young girls are placed on the third floor near the room of Swami Yogananda and the older women are placed on another and different floor; . . . girls have free access to the rooms of said Swami Yogananda, . . . [and] the places of meditation maintained by the defendants are too secretive and ornate of construction.” When told of the allegations Yogananda called Nerode a “chiseler” and vowed a spirited defense.
Yogananda immediately hired hot-shot lawyer A. Brigham Rose, who aggressively attacked the pleadings. Through a series of motions Rose eliminated the irrelevant and scurrilous accusations, but only after they had been fully reported in the press. When Yogananda finally answered the Third Amended Complaint in March, his lawyer dropped a bomb on the case. Nerode had signed not one, but two releases before a notary public on May 3, 1929, prior to leaving New York for Mt. Washington. In doing so he had given up the very rights he was now suing to enforce. These releases incidentally provide a snapshot of the Yogoda Sat-Sanga Society of America in the wake of Dhirananda’s departure.
Nerode was called the “acknowledged leader of the Yogoda Sat-Sanga Society in Mount Washington.” The Mt. Washington “local Center” was self-supporting, but always subject to the approval of Yogananda, who headed the “National Centre” of the “National Yogoda Sat-Sanga Society.” Nerode would work without compensation for the “Yogoda Sat-Sanga Society of America,” which was “primarily a beneficial organization for the help of humanity along the lines of right living and right thinking.” Nerode would never lay claim to “any part of the proceeds derived from Swami Yogananda’s Correspondence Course, or his books, magazine, or any income of his whatsoever.” Nerode could be let go at any time, and would receive for his services only “free minimum board and lodging.” The releases covered all the bases.
Nerode would not give up, Yogananda gave another deposition, and the case went to trial in December 1940. For six days the press wallowed in the proceedings. Famous supporters of Yogananda, such as opera diva Amelita Galli-Curci, were featured in front page photos. Rose grilled Nerode on the stand, but accounts have Nerode holding his own. Yogananda never took the stand. It all came to an end on December 10 when Judge Ingram Bull enforced the 1929 releases, entering judgment in favor of Yogananda on all claims.
Yogananda learned as he went. The bitter tuition of Dhirananda’s betrayal resulted in the Nerode releases of 1929, which would win that later case. When Nerode threatened suit in October 1939, Yogananda had all of SRF’s workers sign Voluntary Releases, giving up any claim to wages or assets of the church. As Yogananda explained, “We have to have business methods in religion but must not use religion for business.”
A Corporate Body | 1992—1997
In addition to the recent arguments about Yogananda’s vow of poverty and his “work for hire” compositions, SRF now boldly asserted that it owned the works in dispute because Yogananda had not actually written them at all! The works in dispute, it seems, had actually been written by a “corporate body,” consisting of nameless SRF minions whose collaborative efforts had been issued under Yogananda’s name. The “corporate body” argument was very attractive from a legal standpoint because if the works had been made collectively by SRF’s anonymous personnel, then SRF could renew those copyrights in its own name. Moreover the term “corporate body” is not defined in the 1909 Act, and few cases over the years have discussed the concept at all. This ambiguity might make it more difficult for Ananda to disprove the claim, and it was, therefore, less implausible than some of SRF’s claims. What could be gleaned from the cases indicated that the “corporate body” argument applied only when some piece of work resulted from the blended efforts of many people, with no individual being identifiable as the author. And once again, the problem with the argument was the facts. Yogananda did his own writing and wrote his own talks. He authored his own works under his own name. He was far from a nondescript staff member, and his creative personality never merged anonymously into some greater corporate collective identity. The corporate body was another forlorn hope, another attempt at legal legerdemain. These off-the-mark arguments may have come from the lawyers, but SRF leadership played along, saying whatever was needed, even when those sworn statements negated Yogananda’s role as guru in his mission. I could not understand the ladies at the top. Were they really hiding evidence and lying under oath, or was God acting in some very mysterious way?
Yogananda opened his Salt Lake City campaign on October 3, 1931. In the audience that night sat the Wright family: mother Rachel, older brother Dick, sisters Faye and Virginia, and younger brother Dale. Dick, better known as C. Richard Wright, would later recall how Yogananda filled the auditorium with “tremendous force; his presence was unbelievably electrifying.” The family met the Master after he talked, attended every lecture in the series, and took every class they could.
The connection must have been “electrifying.” Six weeks after that first meeting, Faye, age 17, left home for Depression-era Los Angeles, to live atop a hill in an old hotel. Faye, now known as Daya Mata, would later explain how Yogananda cured her of a blood disease that earlier had caused her to drop out of high school. She would dedicate her remaining life to Yogananda.
Most of the family quickly followed, with Dick joining them on Mt. Washington the next year. Dick was a dynamo during those early years. He acted as Yogananda’s personal secretary and provided yeoman editorial service on the first set of Praecepta in 1934. Yogananda placed him in charge of personnel and office work at Mt. Washington, and when Yogananda incorporated SRF in 1935, he appointed Dick to the first Board of Directors, and the position of corporate Secretary. Later that same year Yogananda left for his sixteen-month triumphal return to India, taking Dick with him as his personal secretary. In 1937 Dick became the Treasurer of SRF, and served as both Secretary and Treasurer for the next four years. But Dick fell in love. In January 1941 he married, left the Board, and went to work for a living wage at the Lockheed Corporation.
Dick kept a detailed travel journal of the trip to India, filled with the anecdotes he heard and observations he made along the way. We have some sense of the richness of this journal from the extensive quotes that Yogananda included in his Autobiography. The journal itself has disappeared.
Mother Rachel played the matron at Mt. Washington, and received the name Shyama Mata. Faye became Sister Daya, then Daya Mata, and Virginia became Ananda Mata. Together with other Mormon women, such as Laurie Pratt, they formed a cadre of hard-working and loyal devotees. They would run the office and the facilities, the machinery of the organization, through the 1930s and 1940s. They would become the fierce caretakers of Yogananda’s legacy.
Signs and Omens | 1995
There were wonders along the way. I had read stories about miracles experienced by Yogananda’s devotees. Brenda Rossiter, daughter of Dr. Lewis, tells in Treasures Against Time how her father was driving one winter night with fellow disciples Laura Elliott and Alice Hasey (later Sister Yogmata). As they approached a narrow bridge too quickly, another car suddenly blocked their way. A crash seemed inevitable when it suddenly felt ”as if a giant hand were being pressed down on the hood of the car. We slowed instantly to a stop, our car still safely on the road.” Kriyananda recounts another incident in his book The Path, this time involving a disciple name Norman Paulsen. As he drove the Fellowship’s truck down the hill one day the brakes went out. The truck was picking up speed, and Paulsen feared he was about to hurtle to his death, when the truck mysteriously slowed down, to the point that Paulsen could pull it to the curb and park it.
One day I had a little miracle of my own. Returning from a Friday morning status conference before Garcia in May 1995, I was headed back to the Bay Area on my regular route down the valley on I-5. South of Stockton the highway runs two lanes in each direction separated by a wide grassy ditch. As I approached to pass a big-rig carrying a load of telephone poles, it hit a bump that rattled the carefully stacked pile. The top pole began bouncing around, and as I was slowing passing alongside the truck, I saw the pole rolling my way. Hitting the brakes, my car nosed down in deceleration, the pole now sliding off right at me. As I slowed, the pole launched airborne, and landed on one end, straight up in the middle of my lane, as if it planted in the roadway, mere feet in front of me. A moment before the expected explosion of metal and glass, the pole was gone, and I drove through open space. The pole reappeared in my rear view mirror, bouncing end-over-end down the road and into the ditch. The pole had landed perfectly on its end before me, for a fraction of a second, and bounced back up in the air as I drove under it. Just lucky I guess.