Einstein Rights Bring $1 Million Windfall for Hebrew University

The guests who attended last week's premier showing of Steven Spielberg's latest movie, "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," were not the usual crowd of movie critics and the rich and famous, those traditionally present to boost a movie on its first showing. Everyone present was asked to fork out NIS 150 to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which supported the screening. The donations are going to student scholarships.

The unusual gathering and donation for a premier screening comes from the fact that the Hebrew University holds part of the rights in Spielberg's movie. The film brings up the image of Albert Einstein, and the university is the exclusive holder of rights to the use of the name and character of Einstein for commercial purposes.

Einstein left instructions in his will that a significant part of his property, including written material and intellectual property rights, were to be passed to the university. Included in this list of rights, were the use of the name or character of the genius who came up with the Theory of Relativity, which would be used to promote the Hebrew University and its objectives.

The link between the university and Einstein predates even the formal establishment of the university in 1925. Moshe Vigdor, general director and vice president of the university, tells how Einstein was instrumental in helping the institution at every stage of its establishment including the raising of funds. Einstein delivered the first science lecture held there - on the General Theory of Relativity.

With the funds received from the rights, about $1 million a year, the university administers many activities related to the preservation and development of Einstein's legacy. For example, it set up the Albert Einstein Archives, where most of his work papers and research documents are kept, including hand-written original notes on the Theory of Relativity and his work on quantum theory, and the certificate of the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he was awarded in 1921. The archive also keeps some personal effects, such as his cloak, his glasses and some personal letters. The Hebrew University also received partial rights to Einstein's house in Germany, where it holds an annual Einstein forum.

Spielberg's "Artificial Intelligence" is a science-fiction drama that deals with a future where robots take on human personae, and raises the question of what is the limit of machines to mimic human emotions. Though the movie has only a minimal reference to Einstein, Spielberg nevertheless had to pay royalties to Hebrew University. According to Vigdor, following Spielberg's request to the university a year-and-a-half ago to use Einstein's image in the movie, and after checks revealed that the movie does not damage the university, it promptly acquiesced to Spielberg's request.

The university approached an American agency that deals in personal intellectual rights back in the 1980s, and this agency now represents the university in negotiations over Einstein's name and works, including legal representation in cases of unauthorized usage.

A year ago, whereas approval was granted to Pepsi to use the name Einstein in a promotional clip, an alcoholic drinks company that wanted to launch a vodka under the name Einstein was refused. According to Vigdor, the university has taken legal proceedings against usage of the name that has not been approved. An American bagel company, Einstein Bagels, which was named for its owner, was prosecuted for playing on the Einstein name. "We won, and the chain's owners had to pay royalties to the university," says Vigdor.

During the preparation of the Spielberg movie, the Hebrew University was not involved in production and gave no opinion on the messages that would be portrayed on the screen. The movie shows the creation of machines that can have human feelings and independent thoughts, and naturally this sparked some lively public debate, which could reflect on the holder of Einstein's rights. "The controversial subject in this dispute and the movie raises fundamental problems, particularly at the present time, when the world is dealing with genetic engineering and the human genome," says Vigdor. "However, at the university we are debating these kinds of issues every day."