Who Owns Einstein's Face?

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Decades after the genius' death, the question of who controls his publicity rights continues. Even his prodigious imagination could not predict the media world of the early 21st century.

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Albert Einstein was many things, including the co-inventor of a refrigerator. (Contrary to an earlier Atlantic report, he was almost certainly not moonlighting as a blouse designer in 1936. The Social Security Death Index lists five other candidates, two from New York City as in the cited design patent, while Einstein resided in Princeton, New Jersey.)

Economically, though, Einstein today is among other things a dead celebrity, one of the men and women who generate tens of millions of dollars annually for -- whom? Here's where the law is becoming increasingly opaque. Einstein's granddaughter Evelyn, who died last week, was suing the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ) for a share of the income to save herself from destitution. As the articles reproduced here report, Evelyn did not claim any of the literary property bequeathed to HUJ in Albert Einstein's last will, only a share of licensing fees. The law governing so-called "publicity rights" -- permission to use name and image -- is notoriously murky. It's governed by state, not federal law, as copyrights are. Some states, like California, have guaranteed it; others have excluded it or, like New Jersey, are treating it as "common law," whatever that might mean in this case. Because dead celebrities and their executors may have lived in several states, the complications are mind-boggling, and there's a strong case for federal regulation.

Einstein's last will is a public document in New Jersey. There's no mention of what later came to be known as publicity rights. Meanwhile publishers and writers have been driven up the wall, as my former Princeton University Press author, the physicist Tony Rothman, explains. It's all especially strange because Einstein was highly sophisticated about his image and its value in advancing causes he believed in. Even his prodigious imagination evidently could not predict the media world of the early 21st century, or the powers of Photoshopped pastiche exploited by GM (its advertising agency licensed the photographer's rights) now being sued by HUJ.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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