General Motors has successfully defended a right of publicity lawsuit over its use of the image of Albert Einstein in a 2009 advertisement. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which controls Einstein’s rights of publicity, had alleged that GM was not authorized to use his likeness. It sued General Motors for trademark infringement, unfair competition, and violation of California’s right of publicity statute.
The advertisement for the GMC Terrain SUV featured Einstein’s face on top of a muscular man with an “e=mc ” tattoo. The tagline below the image stated, “Ideas are sexy too.” It appeared once in People magazine.
While U.S. District Court Judge Judge A. Howard Matz agreed that the ad was likely in poor taste, he ultimately concluded that it was not illegal.
With regard to the duration of rights to publicity, which can vary under state law, Judge Matz concluded that publicity rights should have an expiration date. “A maximum duration of 50 years appropriately reflects the balance between meaningful enforcement of the right of publicity after a famous individual’s death and the public’s interest in free expression,” he ruled. Under this analysis, Hebrew University’s right to sue terminated in 2005.
As Matz further explained, Einstein is “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.”