Part III — Does SRF Own Yogananda?

SRF Claims the Public is Confused by Ananda’s Actions

SRF’s hope in filing their lawsuit against Ananda was to gain control of the way Ananda communicates with the public. There were three prongs to this aspect of SRF’s legal attack.

(1) SRF registered trademarks on certain terms including “Self-Realization” and the name “Paramahansa Yogananda” (“however spelled”), and charged Ananda with trademark infringement for using the guru’s name and calling ourselves “Ananda Church of Self-Realization.”

(2) SRF also claimed that Yogananda had bequeathed to them exclusive rights over his “name, voice, signature, photograph, and likeness” under laws relating to “publicity rights to a deceased personality.”

(3) SRF accused Ananda of “unfair competition,” specifically, “passing off.” SRF claimed Ananda deceived the public into thinking that Ananda is the same as SRF or is in some way affiliated with SRF in order to benefit from SRF’s reputation and the goodwill associated with its name. Below is a closer examination of the trademark question:

1) Trademark

Can someone own a guru’s name?

SRF claimed Ananda infringed two of their trademarks: “Self-Realization,” and the name “Paramahansa Yogananda.”

“Self-realization” is both a state of consciousness and the path one follows to attain that consciousness. Yogananda chose Self-realization as the best term to describe the timeless teachings of India. For followers of Yogananda, it is our religion. We call ourselves “Self-realizationists.”

SRF and Ananda have a special relationship with the term “Self-realization,” but we are not the only ones who use it. Countless other proponents of the Hindu-Yoga tradition appropriately describe their teachings, too, as “Self-realization.” Yogananda chose a generic, rather than a unique, name.

“Paramhansa Yogananda,” of course, is the name of a God-realized master and the guru of Ananda, SRF, and countless other devotees around the world. Yogananda was not born with this name. He assumed “Yogananda”—which means divine bliss through the practice of yoga—in 1914 when he became a monk in the swami order. “Paramhansa” is India’s highest spiritual title. It was conferred on Yogananda by his guru, Sri Yukteswar, in 1936.

SRF claimed these words, “Paramhansa Yogananda”—which identify one of the greatest spiritual masters of our age—as private property exclusively owned by SRF.

You might well ask, “How is it possible even to register words like these as exclusive trademarks?”

What is a trademark?

Legally speaking, a trademark is a word, a combination of words, a photograph, or a graphic image that is prominently displayed and consistently used by an organization to identify itself or the product or service it offers. A trademark can be entirely original, or a unique combination or application of otherwise common words or objects. A well-developed trademark becomes synonymous with the company, product, or service it represents. The single word “Apple,” for example, and an apple with a bite out of it, in certain contexts, no longer refers to fruit, but to computers.

“Apple” in association with apples, however, could not be registered as a trademark because it is generic. In other words, it would be unfair for one producer of apples to have exclusive rights to a word all apple farmers need to describe what they are selling. Even “Washington Apples” could not be trademarked, because it is merely descriptive. All apple growers in Washington have the same right to use it.

Federal government doesn’t know the meaning of these words

Trademarks are registered in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Proposed trademarks are reviewed to make sure they meet the legal standard and are not already claimed by someone else.

SRF successfully registered both “Self-Realization” and “Paramahansa Yogananda.” The government office had never seen these words before and didn’t know SRF had no right to them.

At first, even Federal Judge Garcia concurred. His preliminary injunction forced Ananda to change its name for a time from Ananda Church of Self-Realization to Ananda Church of God-Realization.

Later, the Judge reversed his ruling on “Self-Realization,” persuaded by “voluminous evidence.” Nearly forty Hindu-Yoga organizations submitted declarations explaining that “Self-realization” is a widely used generic term. Their freedom to use the term was also threatened by SRF’s trademark. Hundreds of other examples showed how “Self-realization” has been used continuously in this country since the late 1800’s-years before Paramhansa Yogananda arrived or SRF was founded.

Aware now that SRF had misled both the court and the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, Judge Garcia lifted the injunction and ordered SRF’s trademark on “Self-Realization” canceled.

Yogananda is a guru, not a trademark

For “Paramahansa Yogananda,” Ananda gave many reasons why the trademark was not valid, including the fundamental right to freedom of religion. Judge Garcia never had to address this point, however, because he had sufficient other grounds for canceling it.

For the name of a person to become a trademark, the meaning has to change. In the mind of the public, he has to cease to be an individual and become a synonym for something else. “Ford” is now a kind of car and the company that makes it. Few think of Henry Ford, the man who started it all.

To SRF, “Paramahansa Yogananda” and “SRF” are synonymous. In their view, one cannot exist without the other. Nonetheless, even in their own advertising, SRF makes it very clear that SRF is an organization and Paramhansa Yogananda is the one who founded it. The meaning of “Paramahansa Yogananda” has not changed. He remains an individual. Judge Garcia, therefore, ordered SRF’s trademark on “Paramahansa Yogananda” canceled.

SRF appealed on both trademarks. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Judge Garcia’s rulings. The trademarks remain canceled.

It is important to note that even without a registered trademark, SRF still has the right to use “Self-Realization” and “Paramahansa Yogananda” in whatever way they choose. All SRF has lost is the right to stop others also from using them.

2) Publicity Rights

What Do Bella Lugosi, Janis Joplin, and Paramhansa Yogananda all have in common?

All three were the subject of lawsuits over who owns the “publicity rights to a deceased personality.” This statute is often called the “Bella Lugosi Law.” When Lugosi died, no specific statute covered publicity rights to a deceased personality. His heirs filed a lawsuit, but ultimately lost the lucrative rights to the Dracula character Lugosi was known for. Many felt it was a miscarriage of justice. So afterwards, the California legislature enacted this law and it was informally named in Lugosi’s honor.

“Publicity rights” confer ownership of the “name, voice, signature, photograph, and likeness” of the deceased personality. SRF charged Ananda with infringing SRF’s publicity rights for Paramhansa Yogananda. Ananda answered by challenging SRF’s claim to own these rights.

Ananda said SRF’s so-called “publicity rights” violate Ananda’s freedom of religion. Judge Garcia, however, found sufficient other grounds for deciding the matter and never ruled on the religious question.

Again the question, what did Yogananda intend?

The matter hinged, as did certain of the copyrights, on a document known as the “1935 Assignment.” Before he left for India in 1935, Paramhansa Yogananda, in a few brief paragraphs, listed all his tangible property and assigned it to SRF. It seems Yogananda was uncertain that he would ever return and wanted to put his affairs in order.

There is no mention of publicity rights in the 1935 Assignment. At that time no one was even thinking about such things. The laws governing them were not passed until thirty years after Yogananda’s passing. Not surprisingly, SRF has not produced a single document or direct comment from Yogananda referring to publicity rights in any way, much less transferring ownership of such rights to SRF.

SRF’s main argument was that the 1935 Assignment transferred to SRF all of Yogananda’s tangible and intangible property, whether in existence in 1935 or created afterwards.

Ananda presented specific evidence showing how Yogananda himself controlled his own publicity rights and freely allowed his name and photograph to be used in ways entirely unrelated to SRF. This clinched the decision for Ananda.

In his May 13, 1997 ruling in favor of Ananda, Judge Garcia stated:

“If the basis for plaintiff’s [SRF’s] ownership of the post-mortem publicity rights is the broad language of the 1935 Assignment transferring all Yogananda’s property to plaintiff, then evidence like that produced by defendants [Ananda] causes the very foundation of plaintiff’s theory of ownership to crumble and requires rejection of plaintiff’s position.”

Judge Garcia went on to say:

“No reasonable jury, viewing all the evidence, could find in plaintiff’s favor…. It is … implausible that Yogananda intended his assignment to transfer his post-mortem publicity rights exclusively to plaintiff when he condoned the use of his pre-death publicity rights by a church other than plaintiff.”

Judge Garcia then ruled sua sponte, which means on the court’s own volition, granting Summary Judgment in favor of Ananda, dismissing altogether SRF’s claim to “publicity rights of a deceased personality.”

Even though they lost in court, SRF still has complete freedom to use Yogananda’s “name, voice, signature, and likeness” in any way they choose. All SRF has lost is the right under this statute to prevent others also from using them.

3) Passing Off

Does Ananda Pretend to be SRF?

SRF further accused Ananda of “unfair competition,” specifically, of something called “passing off.” The essence of this claim is that Ananda deliberately deceives the public into thinking that it is SRF, or is in some way affiliated with SRF, thus trading on SRF’s reputation and good name.

SRF cannot imagine that Ananda could succeed on its own merits. Somehow, in some way, SRF believes, Ananda must be riding on the coattails of SRF.

The fact is, Ananda not only distinguishes itself from SRF, but in the last few decades, Ananda has tried to distance itself from SRF, as SRF has become more and more dogmatic in its approach to Yogananda’s teachings. Ananda declares: “We are separate from SRF—and proud of it!”

SRF examined literally thousands of pages of documents produced by all departments and communities of Ananda over the last twenty-eight years looking for evidence of ways in which Ananda has imitated SRF and thus tried to deceive the public.

Naturally, there are some similarities. After all, both organizations follow the same guru and offer the same essential teachings. Concepts and images are bound to overlap. But once trademark infringement is removed from the equation, nothing is left. Ananda’s full name is Ananda Church of Self-Realization, and in that sense is similar to Self-Realization Fellowship. But the word Ananda always dominates to such an extent that no confusion is possible.

Suspicious calls try to entrap Ananda members

When SRF found itself unable to produce actual evidence of “passing off,” someone tried to create it. All over the country, Ananda churches, communities, schools, and bookstores began receiving transparently phony inquiries from people pretending to want information about Ananda, but in fact trying to get someone from Ananda to say that Ananda and SRF are affiliated. It never worked, because Ananda never claims to be affiliated with SRF. Within Ananda, these calls became a world-wide joke. We’d trade stories back and forth of the most outrageous examples.

Ananda took depositions of SRF to find out the basis for SRF’s claims of unfair competition, confusion and passing off by Ananda. Gradually, this picture emerged.

SRF believes itself to be the sole channel for Yogananda’s teachings. To SRF, there is no such thing as “another Yogananda organization.” There is only SRF. By definition, therefore, it is “confusing” and “unfair” for Ananda also to be a channel for Yogananda’s teachings. If the public somehow has come to believe that Ananda is a channel for Yogananda’s teaching, there is only one explanation: Ananda must be “passing itself off” as SRF. Since SRF is the only possible channel for Yogananda’s teachings. Reasoning in a perfect circle.

SRF’s concern for the bottom line

In the original complaint filed by SRF on July 2, 1990, SRF’s attitude is summed up in these amazing words:

“[T]he use of the terms “Self-realization” … or “Paramhansa Yogananda” … by any church or religious society espousing the principles of Paramhansa Yogananda would result in irreparable injury to SRF. Neither SRF nor any other religious organization can live by faith alone, and must be supported by contributions, donations, and bequests by its members and others interested in supporting the institution. The existence of a rival organization with the name “Church of Self-Realization” would mislead and confuse the public as to which organization was rightfully entitled to their contributions, donations, and bequests.”

 It is hard to say what is most startling about the above statement. Does this whole lawsuit for SRF come down to a question of “Who gets the money?” Does SRF believe people are too incompetent to be given freedom of choice?

The day will come, Yogananda said, when Self-realization will be as influential as Christianity is now. Does SRF believe that a mission of this magnitude will be channeled through SRF and SRF alone?

Fortunately for Ananda and for Yogananda devotees everywhere, the court was not persuaded that Ananda had engaged in “passing off.” Eventually SRF dismissed the claim.


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