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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

Albert Einstein died in 1955 but continues to make millions off his likeness. How?

Even though he has been dead for decades, Albert Einstein’s face is arguably the most recognizable face in the world (unless you count Mickey Mouse or Snoopy) and the use of his likeness annually draws in millions of dollars in revenue. But because he has been gone for so long (the scientist and theoretical physicist died in 1955) who now profits off of the use of his likeness?

Recently, Simon Parkin published a very interesting and very comprehensive piece in The Guardian on just how much Einstein’s likeness is still used today and why that likeness is so valuable to people having nothing to do with him or his family.

Albert Einstein died in 1955. In article 13 of his last will and testament, he pledged that his “manuscripts, copyrights, publication rights, royalties … and all other literary property” would, upon the deaths of his secretary, Helen Dukas, and stepdaughter, Margot Einstein, pass to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an institution that Einstein cofounded in 1918. Einstein made no mention in his will about the use of his name or likeness on books, products or advertisements. Today, these are known as publicity rights, but at the time Einstein was writing his will, no such legal concept existed. When the Hebrew University took control of Einstein’s estate in 1982, however, publicity rights had become a fierce legal battleground, worth millions of dollars each year.
In the mid-1980s, the university began to assert control over who could use Einstein’s name and likeness, and at what cost. Potential licensors were told to submit proposals, which would then be assessed by unnamed arbitrators behind closed doors. An Einstein-branded diaper? No. An Einstein-branded calculator? Yes. Anyone who did not follow this process, or defied the university’s decision, could be subject to legal action. Sellers of Einstein-themed T-shirts, Halloween costumes, coffee beans, SUV trucks and cosmetics found themselves in court. The university’s targets ranged from hawkers of market-stall novelties to multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Apple and the Walt Disney Company, which in 2005 paid $2.66m for a 50-year licence to use the name “Baby Einstein” on its line of infant toys.
Einstein had been a well-paid man. His $10,000 salary at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton – roughly $180,000 in today’s money – was set by the institute to exceed that of any American scientist (“Isn’t that too much?” Einstein queried at the time). But his earnings in life were insignificant compared to his earnings in death. From 2006 to 2017, he featured every year in Forbes’ list of the 10 highest-earning historic figures – “dead celebrities” in the publication’s rather diminishing term – bringing in an average of $12.5m a year in licensing fees for the Hebrew University, which is the top-ranking university in Israel. A conservative estimate puts Einstein’s postmortem earnings for the university to date at $250m.

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