Einstein Ad Was ‘Tasteless,’ But Did Not Constitute Trademark Infringement

The November 30, 2009 “Sexiest Man Alive” issue of People Magazine included an advertisement from General Motors (GM) promoting the company’s Terrain SUV. The GM ad featured the muscular, shirtless torso of a male underwear model with the head of legendary scientist Albert Einstein. The ad also included the tagline “Ideas are sexy too,” and Einstein’s equation for mass-energy equivalence (e=mc2) was a tattoo on the torso’s left shoulder.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ), which was the beneficiary of Einstein’s intellectual property rights as a beneficiary under the terms of the theoretical physicist’s will, sued for trademark infringement, unfair competition and misappropriation of Einstein’s right of publicity.

On October 18, 2012, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that US District Judge Howard Matz ruled that it has been too long since Einstein’s 1955 death to limit the use of his likeness. According to the Daily News, Matz said descendants’ right to control someone’s image after his or her death “must be balanced with the public’s right of expression.” Matz also noted that HUJ’s right to sue expired in 2005—50 years after Einstein’s death—because that was the limit on copyright law in 1982, when the school acquired Einstein’s right of publicity.

“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.”

We have additional information about trademark infringement available on our website, and you can contact our firm at [number] if you have a similar dispute or you can fill out the form on this page to have our Los Angeles business litigation attorneys review your case.

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