Albert Einstein once said, "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once."
But a California federal district court has taught Einstein's heirs another reason for time: the statute of limitations. It was an expensive lesson, worth $10 million in 2012 alone.
The image at issue (shown to the left) was used by General Motors in a print ad for its GMC Terrain SUV. The plaintiff, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (as a beneficiary of Einstein's will), argued that GM used the image without authorization in violation of Einstein's right of publicity.
The court rejected the claim, ruling that GM didn't need consent to use Einstein's image because it had been too long since Einstein's death for anyone to limit the use of his likeness
In the realm of zombie celebrities, Albert Einstein has been a top earner year in and year out. According to Forbes Magazine's annual listing of top earning dead celebrities, Einstein was tied this year with Marilyn Monroe for sixth place on the list, earning his heirs $10 million. (First place for 2012 went to Elizabeth Taylor, who earned $145 million--more than any living celebrity!)
But everything is relative, the Court concluded, finding that Hebrew University's rights in Einstein's image expired in 2005, which was 50 years after his death. In reaching that decision, the Court had to apply New Jersey law and try to predict if and how the Supreme Court of New Jersey (where Einstein resided at the time of his death) would limit the length of a post-mortem right of publicity--an issue never ruled upon by the New Jersey court. The California district court noted, among other things, that 50 years was the limit on copyrights in 1982, which is when the university acquired the right of publicity for Einstein. Observing that the length of the post-mortem right varied State by State, the Court held that 50 years is a "reasonable middle ground that is long enough for a deceased celebrity's heirs to take advantage of and reap the benefit of the personal aspects of the right."
Meanwhile, stay tuned for the appeal.