The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has lost a copyright infringement case for the exclusive use of Albert Einstein's image for commercial purposes. Last week, the US District Court for the Central District of California ruled against the university in favor of General Motors LLC in a case involving GM's ad for its 2010 Terrain vehicle, which ran in an issue of "People" magazine in 2009.
Hebrew University, which earns millions of dollars a year from the use of Einstein's image, earned nothing from this ad. Hebrew University claimed the right of publicity as the beneficiary of Einstein’s estate, which accrue to the university in 1982 by the terms of Einstein’s will.
The ad featured Einstein’s well known face with a slight change. Instead of the wool sweater, dress shirt, and tie Einstein commonly wore, his face is attached to a ripped, shirtless torso with an e=mc2 tattoo on his shoulder. The tagline of the ad is “Ideas are sexy too.”
The court dismissed the case, after deciding that Hebrew University's right of publicity was only valid for 50 years, and that it expired in 2005 - 50 years after Einstein's death in 1955. The court ruled that the university had no cause of action.
The court said that a maximum duration of 50 years "appropriately reflects the balance between meaningful enforcement . . . and the public’s interest in free expression. Einstein is thoroughly ingrained in our cultural heritage and that at some point needs to be available for expression and not just as a possession, even for tasteless ads."