The Uncertain Law of Dead Celebrity Goods, Sexy Einstein Edition

E = mc squared, baby

Thank you, Albert Einstein, for making our point.

Great minds think alike.

Unknown to The Licensing Law Blog, one day before we posted “The Uncertain Law of Dead Celebrity Goods,” representatives of the estate of Albert Einstein sued General Motors Company for an advertisement featuring the head of the Father of Relativity Theory photoshopped onto the ripped, tattooed naked torso of an underwear model, with the caption, “IDEAS ARE SEXY TOO.”

The ad ran in the November 30, 2009 “Sexiest Man Alive” issue of People Magazine to promote the GMC Terrain SUV, explaining, “THAT’S WHY WE GAVE IT MORE IDEAS PER SQUARE INCH.”

GMC was sued in federal court in Los Angeles by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ), which was the beneficiary of all of Einstein’s intellectual property rights in his will, for trademark infringement and misappropriation of Einstein’s rights of publicity. (HUJ also claimed a subsidiary cause of action for unfair competition.) Einstein is the fourth highest grossing deceased celebrity property, earning about $18 million annually, according to Forbes magazine.

What makes this case interesting from a legal point of view is the rights of publicity issue as applied to dead celebrities. HUJ sued GMC under both New Jersey common law rights of publicity and California common law and statutory law rights of publicity.

New Jersey case law is clear that rights of publicity are property, and survive the death of the owner, as mentioned in the previous blog post. What is not clear is how long after death the rights survive. Einstein died in 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey. Did his rights of publicity survive 55 years after his death? The judge in the 1981 case Estate of Presley v. Russen said he had no idea what the survival period was without further guidance from the New Jersey State Legislature (which has not addressed the issue to date), although he suggested in a footnote that a good reference point might be postmortem survival periods under copyright law, which would be at least 70 years after death.

Also, there is the question whether California or New Jersey law controls. Usually (but not always) choice of law principles dictate that the law in rights of publicity cases is controlled by the state of the celebrity’s domicile at the time of death. But after cases involving Marilyn Monroe’s postmortem rights of publicity, in which courts in both New York and Los Angeles ruled in 2007 that the law of New York (Marilyn’s domicile) not California (Marilyn’s place of death) applied, California revised its rights of publicity law in an attempt to preserve postmortem rights of publicity for “personalities” regardless of date or domicile at death. In the unlikely event that this case ever reaches the decision stage, it will be interesting to see whether the court applies New Jersey or California law on rights of publicity.

By the way, no one will accuse GM of being Einsteins in the licensing field. A GM spokesperson said she believed GM had paid a “reputable organization” for rights to run the Einstein ad, but our guess is that they only paid for a copyright license for the Einstein photo, and not for rights of publicity or trademark licenses. In 2005, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also sued GM for using his image in an advertisement without a license.

P.S. In case you are wondering about the impact of GM’s bankruptcy on the Einstein lawsuit, there is none. GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on June 1, 2009, and sold its assets to a new entity on July 10, 2009, which then took the General Motors Company name, and left the “old GM” to settle its debts with the proceeds it received from selling its assets to the “new GM.” So the entity that published the ad at issue on November 30, 2009 was never involved in bankruptcy, therefore the HUJ lawsuit will in no way be restricted or impeded by bankruptcy law.

© 2010 – 2011, Richard R. Bergovoy. All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to “The Uncertain Law of Dead Celebrity Goods, Sexy Einstein Edition”

  1. Robin says:

    Do you realized that the ” stock photo house that was used is well-known and highly reputable” is Greenlight which is named in the lawsuit is owned by Bill Gates? In 2008 Corbis restructured their Rights Services Division into Greenlight.

    Hebrew University has a contract with them. The photo images of Einstein were left to his estate which is administered by Hebrew University

    So Hebrew University is suing GM who used Leo Burnett Advertising who purchased the pictures from Greenlight BUT according to Hebrew University the use of them has to be approved by them and they are claiming it was not.

    So Greenlight is named in the suit but is not being sued. Burnett handled the advertising, but GM is the only one being sued by Hebrew U.

  2. Robin says:

    Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein Drive, Princeton, New Jersey 08540 USA (609) 734-8000

    The Corbis (previously Roger Richman Agency) represents Hebrew University in the United States for granting licensing for the use of Einstein’s image in print, television and film. Anyone seeking permission to use images of Einstein, other than for scholarly publication, should be referred to this agency. Corbis/Roger Richman website
    Roger Richman Agency 9777 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 700
    Beverly Hills, CA 90212
    phone: (310) 276-7000 – fax: (310) 276-8023

    Corbis is owned by Bill Gates. In 2008 they restructured to name their Rights Services Division Greenlightrights. Greenlight is named in the lawsuit as who the picture was purchased from.

    GreenLight LLC and its affiliates exclusively represent publicity, trademark, and related rights of Albert Einstein on behalf of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Albert Einstein” and “Einstein” are trademarks and/or registered trademarks of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

    Does that help you understand. Hebrew University owns the trademarks for Albert Einstein?

  3. Richard R. Bergovoy says:

    Thanks for all the good links, Robin. Too bad GM’s licensing and advertising people were not aware of them.
    Yes, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem owns all of Einstein’s intellectual property (patent, copyrights, trademarks, rights of publicity), and they use GreenLight as their licensing agents to license it out. As I said in the post, my guess (and that’s all it is) is that GM paid somebody for a copyright license for the Einstein photo. But that would only have given GM the rights to reproduce the photograph. If GM wanted to use Einstein’s persona to promote its cars in advertisements, then GM probably needed to purchase a rights of publicity license. If it wanted to sell Einstein branded motor vehicles or imply that Einstein approved of or endorsed GM motor vehicles, then it probably needed to purchase a trademark license. (As a practical matter, rights of publicity licenses and trademark licenses are often bundled in celebrity endorsement deals.)

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