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NEW YORK – Once, he was a genius theoretical physicist who brought the world the theory of relativity.
Today, Albert Einstein – with his crazy mane of white hair, deep-set eyes and occasionally goofy expressions – is an extremely lucrative brand image, and one that the Hebrew University doesn’t want anyone to use without permission.
But, in a declaratory relief action filed last month in federal court in New York, Long Island-based costume and disguise company Forum Novelties challenged Hebrew University’s claims to Einstein’s name, image and likeness.
Forum Novelties’ attorney, Andrew Langsam, of the New York firm Pryor Cashman, did not return calls for comment, and Hebrew University refused to comment on the pending suit.
Forum Novelties, was taken to task by Hebrew University for selling a “Heroes in Disguise” kit which included a white curly wig and white moustache meant to represent Einstein.
The costume company is fighting back with its suit, claiming that Hebrew University has gone too far in its pursuit of profit from Einstein’s likeness.
Forum Novelties suit alleges that Hebrew University could not “inherit”
Einstein’s right of publicity because Einstein didn’t exploit it during
his own lifetime.
The costume seller also makes a First Amendment defense, claiming its
Heroes in Disguise kits are “intended to be worn by children acting in
historically based school plays and in every day play.”
There is also a trademark component to the case. Albert Einstein, like
Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth and Al Capone, is a US federally registered
trademark. Hebrew University owns several Albert Einstein federal
trademarks, including clocks, bumper stickers, socks, imitation luggage,
cookie jars, flower pots, toy butterfly nets and sweatshirts.
“Where the commercialization of celebrity rights seems to be forever
expanding, the Forum case is a rare, somewhat risky, preemptive attempt
to expand the bounds of permissible use of a celebrity’s name and
likeness,” New York attorney Lloyd Jassin blogged about the case.
“Exploitative or informational? A First Amendment protected costume or
an advertisement in disguise? Whatever the court decides, Einstein is
clearly a bankable cultural icon worth fighting over.”
Although Hebrew University did not allow Einstein’s image to be used to
sell vodka or for a Madonna concert, it did make a deal with the Walt
Disney Company to use the name “Baby Einstein” on a line of infant and
toddler educational toys in 2005.
It was estimated that the university earned $2.6 million on that deal
alone, and $10 million in the past year overall from licensing deals.