Swahili Speakers Object to Disney’s Trademark of “Hakuna Matata”

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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For most people who don’t speak Swahili, the phrase “Hakuna Matata” is probably best known
From the 1994 Disney film The Lion King.

The phrase is the title of a song from the movie, and it means “no worries.”

For 60 to 150 million Swahili speakers (estimates vary), who mostly live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, “Hakuna Matata” is a common, everyday expression used in response to greetings, and it is not associated with Disney or The Lion King.

Disney T-Shirts

As NPR reported,

Disney applied to register the words in a trademark that year to protect the phrase from being printed on T-shirts. According to public records, the trademark was approved for registration in 2003 and is still active — meaning that Disney can sue companies that use the words on a shirt if it looks like a Lion King knockoff.

The upcoming 2019 release of a live action movie version of The Lion King, staring Beyonce, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor, has renewed the debate over whether Disney’s trademark is an act of cultural appropriation.

Good Morning

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer and professor of comparative literature at the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, told NPR that the “Hakuna Makata” trademark
“would be like trademarking ‘good morning’ or ‘it is raining cats and dogs’ in the case of English.”

NPR reported that a petition has been circulating on social media, calling for Disney to drop the trademark on the phrase.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

This isn’t the first intellectual property dispute arising out of a song in The Lion King. Another involves the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

In 1939, a Zulu man named Solomon Linda and his group recorded a song called “Mbube” (“Lion”) in a Johannesburg recording studio. It became the most famous song to come out of Africa.

A version of the song called “Wimoweh” was recorded by the American folk singer Pete Seeger and reached number six on the US pop charts in 1952.

At least 150 other cover versions have been released.

Ten Shillings

Solomon Linda had sold his rights to the song for ten shillings. He died with the equivalent of $25 in the bank.

After his death, Linda’s family lived in poverty – until his daughter saw The Lion King on television and resolved to reclaim her father’s legacy.

In 2003, the family’s lawsuit reached a South African copyright lawyer who was an expert in an obscure clause of the 1911 Imperial Copyright Act known as the “Dickens Provision.”

The Dickens Provision

Victorian novelist Charles Dickens (who wrote classics like Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol had signed publishing contracts that left his family with only a pittance in royalties after his death.

His fans convinced the British Parliament to change the law so that all rights in a copyrighted work would revert to the creator’s heirs 25 years after the creator’s death.

This law was enacted throughout the British Empire — including in South Africa. The US also has a similar law.

The result of the lawsuit was that Linda’s daughters were found entitled to royalties dating back to 1987 – 25 years after their father’s death. They sought the equivalent of $1.6 million.

When Disney refused to pay up, the lawyer attached 240 Disney trademarks, including Mickey Mouse.

The case eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.

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