Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is Albert Einstein Now in the Public Domain?

The GM Ad
Albert Einstein was no stranger to the concept of Intellectual Property.  In fact, he was a patent clerk in Switzerland as a young man.

Einstein later emigrated to the United States and took up residence in Princeton, New Jersey and held a professorship at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study.  Einstein contributed so significantly to modern science that his name and likeness are still synonymous with genius.

Albert Einstein died in 1955, naming the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as one of the beneficiaries of his will.  As part of that will, he bequeathed all of his Intellectual Property, including any rights to his likeness or persona.

Over five decades after his death, many successful commercial products still bear his name and likeness.  So much so, in fact, that Forbes lists Einstein as one of the top 15-earning "dead celebrities," raking in up to $10M per year.

For example, new parents are familiar with the BABY EINSTEIN and LITTLE EINSTEIN products and videos.  These products were licensed by the Hebrew University, helping to make EINSTEIN a very valuable trademark.

However, now that 5 decades have past since Albert Einstein's death, Courts have ruled that at least some of Hebrew University's valuable rights may be at an end.

Carmaker General Motors had used an altered image of Einstein in a 2009 ad for the GMC Terrain, a sport utility vehicle.  The ad, which ran only once in People magazine, showed Einstein's face pasted onto a muscular body with an "e=mc " tattoo.  It carried the slogan "Ideas are sexy too." (See above)

Hebrew University sued GM in 2010, arguing the carmaker had no right to commercially utilize Einstein's image, and demanding damages.

But the Court ruled that descendants' right to control an image after death must be balanced with the public's right of expression.

The Court also ruled that any right Hebrew University had to sue expired in 2005 - 50 years after Einstein's death, because that was the limit on copyright law in 1982, when Hebrew University acquired Einstein's right of publicity.