The United States District Court for the Central District of California gave a ruling on 15th October, 2012 that ownership of Einstein’s publicity rights have lapsed and cannot be enforced by Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ) anymore. This ruling came in for a lawsuit that was filed by HUJ against General Motors LLC (GM) for infringing HUJ’s right over Einstein’s publicity.
REASON FOR LAWSUIT
GM advertised in an issue of People magazine in 2009 for its 2010 Terrain vehicle. In the advertisement Einstein’s well known facial expression with a slight change was featured. But instead of the wool sweater, dress shirt and tie that Einstein commonly wore, his face was attached to a ripped, shirtless torso with an e=mc2 tattoo on his shoulder. The tagline for the same was “Ideas are sexy too”. HUJ had claimed that they were entitled to use Einstein’s name and image as a beneficiary of Einstein’s estate which were given to the University in 1982 by the terms of Einstein’s will.
BASIS OF CASE
There were two parts of this case which HUJ wanted to be heard separately, so they argued to apply doctrine of ‘dépeçage’ in the California District Court. The doctrine of ‘dépeçage’ allows that different issues in a single case arising from a common nucleus of operative facts may be decided according to the substantive law of different states. But California District Court said that these both issues are different aspects of one question only. So, they both were heard simultaneously. Issues were regarding:
1. Duration of rights
2. Right of publicity
District Court ruled that California statute allows rights of publicity for 70 years after death but that applies only to California domiciliaries. It further ruled that at the time of death Einstein had a domicile of New Jersey so laws of New Jersey governs for how much time rights of publicity should have been granted.
Court stated that for the time being there is no specific law related to rights of publicity in New Jersey. District Court said that at the time of acquiring the rights of publicity of Einstein i.e. in 1982, the law used to be for 50 years after death so, District Court anticipated that rights of publicity should have been granted for 50 years only and thus, rights of publicity for Einstein’s name and image have lapsed for HUJ and this whole case was dismissed by the court. The final decision thus was in favor of GM and Einstein’s image and name came into public domain in 2005. The case ruling can be checked here
This is an interesting case because in this case public policies were used to determine the final judgment. District Court in its final ruling anticipated the law from older laws and gave out a ruling and that was too in favor of the defendant. The Court gave 50 years policy stating that rights beyond 50 years struck an improper balance and raised “considerable First Amendment concerns due to a potentially infinite curb on expression”. It also said that maximum duration of 50 years is appropriate and it reflects the balance between meaningful enforcement and the public’s interest of expression.