By KATHIANNE BONIELLO and REUVEN BLAU
Call it an uncertainty principle. A Queens costume company and Hebrew University of Jerusalem are colliding over the rights to Albert Einstein’s face.
That’s because the Israeli university that inherited the physicist’s papers in his will has made sure it has gotten paid every time his name or image is used commercially, in everything from “Baby Einstein” videos to TV commercials.
The university secured a trademark on the Einstein name in 2003, and earned $10 million last year alone from the use of Einstein’s name and image.
Now it has gone after Forum Novelties, which sells “disguise kits” for kids, including an Albert Einstein likeness (including a white, curly-haired wig and a white moustache) in its “Heroes in History” line.
Hebrew University wants to be paid each time Forum sells such a kit, but the company is fighting back, claiming the school has made a critical blunder in its pursuit of profit.
The school has no right to publicize and profit from Einstein’s name, Forum claims in a lawsuit it filed last week in Manhattan federal court.
Einstein might have left his papers and the literary rights from his estate to the school when he died in 1955 at age 76, but he died in New Jersey — and under New Jersey law, a person has a right of publicity only if he or she commercially exploits their name before they die.
Einstein didn’t, Forum Novelties asserts, so Hebrew University is in the wrong.
“HUJ cannot ‘inherit’ rights from Albert Einstein which did not exist at the time of his death,” according to court papers.
Celebs and the estates of deceased celebs usually have to fight for their rights, top copyright lawyer Lloyd Jassin said.
“You’re seeing a tremendous growth in both infringement and licensing opportunities,” he said. “The postmortem right of publicity is big, big money. The question is, how long should it last?”
The university defends its ownership of the Einstein name in court regularly, most recently filing a federal lawsuit against General Motors after the car company used an image of the physicist’s face over the naked, muscled torso of an underwear model in an ad.
New Jersey is one of 17 states that have laws about the postmortem “right of publicity,” or the right to use a person’s name, voice, signature, etc., in a commercial setting after he or she dies.
Some states set limits on how long a dead star can be capitalized on — it’s 100 years in Indiana and Oklahoma, while California law allows 70 years.
That’s good news for Hollywood agency CMG, which controls Marilyn Monroe’s image. The screen siren died in 1962.
Elvis, however, can be milked forever as far as Tennessee is concerned; there’s no expiration on the right of publicity in that state. The crooner came in second on Forbes’ annual list of top-earning dead celebs this year, with $60 million for Presley Enterprises.
But that’s nowhere near last year’s number one: Michael Jackson, who raked in $275 million in the 12 months after his unexpected death.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and its licensing agent Greenlight LLC, which is also named in the Forum Novelties suit, did not respond to messages requesting comment.