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Use of Einstein’s image not protected under New Jersey law

In a recent case, a federal judge ruled that New Jersey common law did not protect against the use of Albert Einstein’s image nearly 55 years after his death. Einstein, like many other famous people and businesses, had an intellectual property right in his image, likeness and name. When he died in New Jersey in 1955, Einstein gave this right to publicity to Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 2009, General Motors used a picture of Einstein’s head that had been transposed onto a different body to advertise a sport utility vehicle. While the advertisement only ran in one magazine, Hebrew University still brought a lawsuit against General Motors in 2010, claiming General Motors had violated its right to publicity in Einstein. Hebrew University filed the lawsuit in federal court in California.

Hebrew University had hoped the judge would apply California law to the situation because California protects the right to publicity for 70 years after a person dies. However, the judge refused to apply California law since Einstein had never lived there. Instead, the judge applied federal and New Jersey laws to the situation. According to the court, there were no New Jersey statutes that applied. Under federal law, the judge ruled that the right to publicity only lasted 50 years in this situation and therefore it had expired before General Motors used Einstein’s image.

Like any business should, Hebrew University moved quickly to try to protect its intellectual property rights. Intellectual property can be just as important, and just as valuable, to a company as any other type of property. If these rights are not protected, other businesses could potentially make money off of the unauthorized use of the intellectual property.

However, in many cases, licensing agreements can be drafted so that companies can share their intellectual property with others. These agreements give more control over intellectual property and can be lucrative when handled properly.

Source: Mercury News, “GM’s use of Einstein image ‘tasteless’ but not illegal, judge says,” Eric Hartley, Oct. 18, 2012

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