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E=Lawsuit Squared

You don’t have to be Einstein to smell a rat

Liel Leibovitz
March 18, 2011
Albert Einstein (left, with David Ben-Gurion).(Wikipedia)
Albert Einstein (left, with David Ben-Gurion).(Wikipedia)

Last month, a man walked in to a copy shop in Petach Tikvah, a midsize town in central Israel, and told the proprietor he wanted to print 40 T-shirts with Albert Einstein’s face emblazoned on the front. Not a problem, said the proprietor, Ben Farag. At the customer’s request, he printed out a sample T-shirt and handed it over. Which is where the story begins.

This week, Farag received a letter from a law firm representing Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which owns the intellectual property rights to Einstein’s estate. “Our client,” it read, “was astounded to discover that at your store—you are printing shirts and other products with the late Prof. Albert Einstein’s image. The use that you made is public and commercial use which constitutes damage to the brand and blatant damage to the rights of our client under the law.” It didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was all a sting; the law firm’s letter included a snapshot taken by the ostensible customer, showing Farag holding the sample T-shirt. Hebrew U., the letter continued, demanded 20,000 NIS (approximately $5,600) in compensation.

After the newspaper contacted the university, a spokesperson called the copy shop owner to apologize. The university, he said, had outsourced matters pertaining to Einstein’s intellectual property to a private company, which, in turn, hired an investigator to identify unauthorized usage. The sting was the private eye’s bright idea.

Einstein, who was instrumental in helping raise funds for the university’s founding in 1925, delivered the institution’s first scientific lecture, a talk on relativity. The rights to his intellectual property, according to some estimates, net the university approximately $1 million per year—and more, presumably, in legal action, given that, inthe last three years alone, the university has sued the Israeli cellular giant Pelephone, General Motors, and Google for using the wild-haired genius’s name or likeness without permission.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.