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Open Season on Einstein's image?

A California Federal judge has ruled that General Motors didn't violate copyright rules  by using Einstein's image in an advertisement.

Einstein as depicted in a 2009 GMC Terrain ad.
In keeping with the wishes in Einstein's will, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem owned rights to nearly all of his images. The University collected fees for the use of pictures in ads and other materials, and denied permission in cases the University deemed inappropriate.

The image here is from an ad that General Motors placed in People Magazine in 2009. Unsurprisingly, the Hebrew University took GM to court in 2010 seeking compensation for the unauthorized, and highly modified, picture.

In a ruling released today, the judge in the case determined that the rights to Einstein's image expired in 2010, fifty-five years after his death in New Jersey back in 1955, and that the lawsuit was initiated too late for the University to recoup any damages. Incidentally, had Einstein passed away in California, the copyright would still stand because the state allows heirs to maintain their rights up to seventy years after death.

The more significant point is that now, at least according to California courts, anyone can use Einstein's face in any way they like. This is in stark contrast to previous years when the Hebrew University was able to rigorously enforce their copyrights on a vast array of things related to Einstein.

It seems likely that we will see lots more of Einstein in ads very soon (although it's hard to imagine how you could see more of him than in the picture shown here without running up against a few decency laws.)


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