Genius Branding Move: GM Cleared in Einstein Trademark Suit

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Albert Einstein has been dead since 1955 but that doesn’t mean the fuzzy-haired genius isn’t still causing controversies. 

Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a beneficiary of Einstein’s will, was not happy back in 2009 when General Motors Photoshopped the well-known face onto the body of a buff bodybuilder in an ad that ran in People magazine for its GMC Terrain SUV. On “Einstein’s” arm was an “e=mc2” tattoo and the ad carried the tagline of “Ideas Are Sexy Too.”

Ideas may be sexy, but Hebrew University was not amused. It sued GM in 2010 and finally got its answer from a judge this week. Judge A. Howard Matz of U.S. District Court found that the use of Einstein’s image was “tasteless,” but not illegal, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. In addition, the judge noted that, even if the action had been illegal at some point, the University had no right to claim Einstein’s image as their own since it had been more than 50 years since Einstein’s death.[more]

“A maximum 50-year postmortem duration here would be a reasonable middle ground that is long enough for a deceased celebrity’s heirs to take advantage of and reap the benefit of the personal aspects of the right,” wrote Matz, the Daily News reports.

Matz also noted that it was clear to consumers that Einstein’s heirs weren’t saying that the man who was TIME’s Person of the Century would be tooling around in a Terrain if he were alive today. Indeed, Einstein is ranked as the 7th top-earning dead celebrity by Forbes, due in large part to Disney’s Baby Einstein and Little Einsteins franchises, coupled with a variety of licensees: “lucrative tie-ins include Italy’s Banca Profilo’s ‘Face Value’ campaign, Chrysler’s (Dodge) Ram brand truck ads and a collection of A.J. Morgan ‘geek chic’ glasses. The scientist’s estate has also expanded into videogames with a Nintendo DS brain game that retails for about $50.”

“The Ninth Circuit (a federal appeals court) recently noted that Marilyn Monroe considered herself to belong ‘to the Public and to the world,’ ” Matz wrote. “There is no evidence that Albert Einstein saw himself that way, but he 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.”

What this means for Hebrew U going forward remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Relativity is in the eye of the beholder.

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