Jury: Copyrights violated by church

TheUnion.com/October 30, 2002
By Doug Mattson

A lengthy legal battle involving the Nevada County-based Ananda Church of Self-Realization ended Monday in federal court.

All eight jurors found that Ananda and its founder, J. Donald Walters, infringed on the copyrights of the Los Angeles-based Self-Realization Fellowship by reprinting articles and selling recordings of the fellowship's long-since-dead guru.

Jurors also awarded Self-Realization Fellowship roughly $29,000 in damages.

The verdicts capped a monthlong trial and 12 years of courtroom wrangling, and it ended with each side declaring some form of victory.

"On balance, I'm pleased with the outcome," said Ananda lawyer Robert Christopher of Palo Alto. "It will mean the (Ananda) church will survive without financial injury."

He claimed the fellowship had earlier sought $6 million in damages.

But a lawyer for Self-Realization Fellowship, Philip Stillman of San Diego, said the case was never about money. "These guys literally stole magazine articles and started publishing them as their own," he said.

The case hinged on the writings and recordings of Paramhansa Yogananda, a native of India who founded Self-Realization Fellowship in the late 1920s. He died in 1952. Walters became a member in 1948 but was "thrown out" in 1962, said Stillman's legal partner, Michael Flynn.

Walters, known as Swami Kriyananda, later started Ananda Village in Nevada County. It became home to hundreds of followers who also revered Yogananda and his words. The group republished his articles and sold his recordings, according to Stillman and Flynn.

Jurors ultimately agreed with Self-Realization Fellowship's argument that Yogananda had repeatedly made his intentions clear before dying - he wanted the fellowship to maintain copyrights to his works.

The lawsuit moved sluggishly, as it was twice appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and twice returned to Sacramento.

Along the way, Walters was sued for sexual harassment and fraud by former Ananda member Anne-Marie Bertolucci, whose lawyers claimed Walters fraudulently used his title of swami, implying he was celibate.

Other women testified Walters coerced them into sex. Bertolucci was awarded damages in excess of $1 million in 1998.

Ananda leaders painted the sexual harassment lawsuit as a smear campaign and the product of the bitter dispute between Self-Realization Fellowship and Ananda.

Christopher, Ananda's trial lawyer, contended the dispute still exists. He said the copyright lawsuit lasted so long "because religious intolerance still prevails in this country ... A lot of times, people involved in certain religions will not tolerate persons or institutions that take a different path."

Stillman scoffed in response. He claimed the Self-Realization Fellowship wasn't behind the Bertolucci case and that the fellowship hasn't filed other suits against Ananda.

"This has nothing to do with religious persecution," he said, returning to the copyright issue. "I mean, go write your own stuff, and (Walters) has done some of that."

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