A lot! There’s even a lesson for us regarding estate planning.
Einstein died in 1955 with a complete New Jersey estate plan (for those times). In his last will, he bequeathed (love that word!) his “manuscripts, copyrights, publication rights, royalties … and all other literary property” to his sister and assistant, and then after their passing, to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an institution that he cofounded in 1918.
Einstein failed to mention “the use of his name or likeness on books, products or advertisements” in his last will. Today, these are called “publicity rights”, but at the time Einstein wrote his will, this legal concept didn’t exist. When the Hebrew University took control of Einstein’s estate in 1982, as wecan imagine, Einstein’s publicity rights had become valuable and a fierce legal battleground. These postmortem (after death) rights vary from state to state.
So, how would this postmortem publicity rights case played out had Einstein lived in the Sunshine State?
Florida law provides a statutory post-mortem term of 40 years. Had Einstein been a Floridian, Hebrew University could only prevent the use of Einstein’s image and likeness for 40 years after his passing. New Jersey, however, where Einstein died, is one of 17 US states that has no limitation on the right of an heir to profit from a dead celebrity’s publicity rights. This allows Hebrew University to bring legal action against alleged infringers INDEFINITELY.
While the question of who owns Albert Einstein’s image (and for how long) remains unsettle, welearn that states differ greatly in the postmortem publicity rights and it’s important to have the latest and greatest documents for your estate plan to include as much as possible.
A question that sometimes drives me hazy—am I or are the others crazy?
– Albert Einstein
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