for the People
You never know what bizarre things you’ll learn from reading
the tags on baby products. For example, I have (my daughter
has?) a mirror intended to hang by a changing table or in
a crib. It is surrounded in a safely soft frame covered in
interesting colorful things for a baby to look at. It is made
by Baby Einstein. This is supposed to make you believe this
mirror will help your 3-month-old have a better shot at Yale.
Or some such nonsense.
What I was not expecting in the fine print, however, was “Albert
Einstein is the registered trademark of the Hebrew University
Come again? Einstein? How can you trademark Einstein? His
name is practically a word in the English language, a synonym
for genius. As in “Nice thinking, Einstein.” OK, so maybe
it’s only used in the sarcastic, but still. How could a baby-toy
company be paying a university for the right to use his name?
Turns out it’s a manner of entrepreneurial interpretation
of Einstein’s will. He was a supporter of Israel, and left
his manuscripts, papers, copyrights, and “all other literary
property and rights” to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Now I, and most other people I know, would take that to mean
“all other literary property and literary rights.” The University
folks have taken it to mean literary property and all
other rights. And they’ve decided he had trademark rights
to the use of his name and his image and, get this, E=mc2,
and now those rights are theirs.
They hired the Roger Richman Agency, now owned by Bill Gates’
company Corbis, to register and pursue this right, and people
are buying it. Or paying for it, at least. Big companies are
coughing up whenever they want to reference his geniushood.
That’s in fact one of the main things the Richman Agency does.
To quote their Web site: “Corporate America has discovered
the power of a classic! The Roger Richman Agency’s celebrated
personalities deliver instant recognition, recall and credibility
to your advertising campaign and/or promotional program.”
The extensive “client” list of the agency is creepy. It includes
Ethel Merman, George Burns, Buckminster Fuller, Isaac Asimov,
Mae West, Betty Grable and Sigmund Freud.
Companies from Target to Tiffany & Co., from Frito-Lay
to Dow Chemical are among those who have paid for the rights
to use the image of one of these “legendary personalities.”
I am somewhat sympathetic to the idea that among the things
one could leave to one’s children is a sort of perpetual bank
account in the form of rights to the use of one’s image. And
I do think that there is a difference between advertising
and non-commercial uses. Do I care what the big corporations
need to cough up for? So far I don’t think the Richman Agency
has tried to get any money from the teaching of relativity.
But you know what? Encyclopedia Britannica is also on the
list of companies that have forked over money to the Richman
Agency. I shudder to think what percentage of their hefty
subscription fee is going to the inclusion of pictures of
people someone has heard of.
Richman doesn’t always win when challenged. In a fight over
the domain name alberteinstein.com, an arbitration panel of
the World Intellectual Property Organization ruled that since
Einstein was never using his name to promote the purchase
of anything, not to mention that he died before the World
Wide Web, that there was no trademark interest there to be
protected. (That’s even if you did accept the university’s
opportunistic linguistics, which the judge panel reviewing
the case was split on.)
From the WIPO decision: “Because Dr. Einstein died long before
the advent of the Internet and was not in his lifetime engaged
in the supply of goods or services under his name, this Panel
finds that what Internauts are seeking when they enter the
disputed domain name is information about Dr. Einstein. That
is precisely what Respondent’s site contains.”
People like Einstein and Bucky Fuller are part of our cultural
heritage, and as such should be fair game for art, for the
names of journals and of bands, for propaganda, and yes, for
I don’t suppose in an ideal world I’d want alberteinstein.com
to be a link farm. I’m sure I could think of a host of things
I wouldn’t want my image to be used to advertise, in the very
rare chance anyone would ever think that was a good idea.
But that’s a small price to pay compared to the idea that
some private entity thinks it is owed money whenever someone
publicly prints the equation for special relativity.