Cashing in on the Image of a Genius

The Jerusalem Post. September 3, 2004.

He is clearly a great admirer of the daring genius who wrote the Theory of Relativity and Vigdor wants to ensure that neither Einstein’s name, nor his image are used without permission for any dubious or improper purposes. If they are, Vigdor will sue. And as one of the custodians of Einstein’s name and image, which were bequeathed by Einstein to the university when he died in 1955, Vigdor has the full power of the law behind him.

Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in 1921, is probably the most enduring figure of the 20th-century. His intelligent downcast eyes, thick white moustache and shaggy mane of hair are instantly recognizable worldwide. His name itself is synonymous with genius.

In 2000, Time Magazine named him ‘Man of the Century,’ an honor few would refute. His ideas reverberated throughout the century, influencing everything from science, to painting and poetry.

For the Hebrew University, which Einstein helped establish in the early 1920s, Einstein has an extra significance – he is likely to become the university’s biggest donor.

When Einstein, a fervent Zionist, died in 1955, no one had heard of the concept of celebrity rights. Einstein, however, with his unique perspicaciousness, realized that there would come a time when his name and image would be worth a fortune.

As a result, when he left the Hebrew University his entire intellectual property, including his handwritten notes of the Theory of Relativity and many of his letters and other personal effects, he also left the school the right to use his image.

It took 30 years to sort out the legal complexities, but finally in the late 1980s, the Hebrew University received the rights to Einstein’s name and the thousands of photographs taken of him.

The university spent the next few years figuring out what to do with these rights and finally contacted The Roger Richman Agency in Los Angeles, a legal firm that specializes in celebrity rights and asked them to take charge.

Over the last 10 years, the university has received $10 million in fees from organizations using the Einstein image and Vigdor is certain that this sum will increase in the years ahead.

Steven Spielberg paid $600,000 to use a brief shot of Einstein in his film, AI (‘Artificial Intelligence’) and Pepsi Cola was also given permission to use a picture of Einstein in one of its advertising campaigns.

Pop diva Madonna, however, was turned down when she asked for permission to use an image of Einstein in one of her concerts, despite the potential for thousands of dollars of royalty fees.

“We only agree to requests that are faithful to his vision and attitudes,” says Vigdor, who is one of three members of a special university committee that decides which organizations can use Einstein’s image. “We won’t agree to just anything.” Hence, Vigdor recently said yes to Walt Disney, which is planning a range of toys called ‘Baby Einstein,’ and yes to a watch company that plans to run a picture of Einstein to advertise a new line of watches, with the slogan “The man who reinvented time.”

On the other hand, the board turned down a request from a liquor company planning to launch a vodka called ‘Einstein’ and is also likely to turn down a request from a tobacco company wishing to use Einstein’s image to advertise its wares, despite the fact that Einstein smoked a pipe.

The cost of using Einstein’s image depends on who is using it and why. Commercial entities pay full price, but charitable and educational organizations use it free or at a low cost. An animal rights group in the U.S., for example, paid a small fee to use an image of Einstein, a devout vegetarian, for one of its campaigns.

“If an organization is promoting the ideas of Einstein, even if that company is Pepsi, we will grant the request,” explains Vigdor. “It allows us to expose new people to the thoughts and ideas of Einstein and this is valuable. Einstein had ideas in many different areas. He was one of the greatest sons of the Jewish people and we want to bring his visions to as many people as we can.”

With this in mind, the university has asked the Beverly Hills agency to be proactive in selling the Einstein name. On the other hand, the university also spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to prevent Einstein’s legacy from being abused.

This is not an easy task. While the law pertaining to celebrity rights is highly developed in the U.S., in Europe and Israel laws are only in their infancy and are therefore hard to enforce. And, there are hundreds of cases.

Once an infringement has been discovered, Vigdor says that in most cases organizations will either stop using the image, or make a settlement. “Part of what we are doing is educating the system to celebrity rights,” he explains.

On rare occasions, the university will take a company to court.

The university has already successfully sued a U.S. bagel company and is now suing an Israeli company that used the image of Einstein to promote its printers.

The university is demanding NIS 1 million in compensation. “It’s a test case,” says Vigdor. “This is the first time we have tried to enforce our rights. If we win, no one in Israel will be able to infringe on our rights.”

In 2005, Vigdor envisions revenues from Einstein’s rights to rise to $2m., as it is the centennial anniversary of the publication of his Theory of Relativity and celebrations are expected worldwide. Already, the university is receiving an increasing number of requests. Germany is planning to use Einstein’s image on three million commemorative coins and on a new stamp.

The university has also organized a traveling exhibition dedicated to Einstein, showing off many of the mementos from its collection. The exhibition has opened to great acclaim in New York and further exhibitions are planned across the U.S. and Europe.

Vigdor has no qualms about using Einstein’s image to make money for the university. “Einstein wanted the university to benefit financially,” he explains.

Though $10m. over a decade does not seem much, Vigdor says it is highly significant for the cash-strapped university, enabling it to purchase advanced scientific equipment, maintain the Einstein archives at the National Library and organize significant scientific seminars.

Vigdor also expects this capital to increase in coming years. “In the future, Einstein will be one of the university’s largest donors,” he says.

Some years ago, Einstein’s two stepdaughters from his second marriage bequeathed Einstein’s German summer home to the university. The university is now renovating the modest, little wooden house near Potsdam, which was built according to Einstein’s specifications and intends to open it in spring next year.

The university plans to use it for seminars and meetings. The house will also be open to visitors.

So why after all this time has Einstein remained so significant? “He was probably the world’s greatest scientist and a compelling human being,” says Vigdor. “He changed the world. No one has come close to doing something comparable. Normally when people die, interest in them fades, but interest in Einstein is increasing all the time. If you look at pictures of Einstein, his charisma shines through. You can see something different in his eyes, which you can’t ignore. He was a giant amongst men.”