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Einstein 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 of Jerusalem.”

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, 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 kitsch.

I don’t suppose in an ideal world I’d want 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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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