A federal judge in California has thrown out a suit brought by Hebrew University challenging General Motors’ use of Albert Einstein’s image in a 2009 advertisement for an SUV.
GM used an image of Albert Einstein in a November 2009 advertisement for its 2010 Terrain vehicle; it depicted Einstein’s face digitally pasted onto a muscled physique, accompanied by the written message “Ideas are sexy too.” The ad ran in only one issue of People Magazine.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem argued it owned Einstein’s right of publicity as a beneficiary under Einstein’s will, and sued the Detroit automaker in 2010 in Los Angeles seeking damages.
In a 16-page ruling released Monday, U.S. District Judge Howard Matz ruled that any protections had expired 55 years after he died.
“Einstein did become the symbol and embodiment of genius. His persona has become thoroughly ingrained in our cultural heritage. Now, nearly 60 years after his death, that persona should be freely available to those who seek to appropriate it as part of their own expression, even in tasteless ads,” he ruled.
GM argued that even if Hebrew University could prove both Einstein’s intent on publicity and GM’s violation of that right, it should not be entitled to money because too much time elapsed between Einstein’s death in 1955 in New Jersey and the filing of the lawsuit in 2010. The company had licensed the photo from Getty Images.
GM noted that it was only in 1985 that Hebrew University sought to create a business around Einstein’s image, noting that his face had been used before that to sell everything from life insurance to computer software without compensation.
Matz noted that the benefactors of California residents have the right to control publicity for 70 years after a person dies. New Jersey has no law and a federal court previously held that under federal law, well-known people are entitled to 50 years of protection after death.
“The obviously humorous ad for the 2010 Terrain having been published 55 years or more after Einstein’s death, it is unlikely that any viewer of it could reasonably infer that Einstein … was endorsing the GMC Terrain.