Disney’s trademark of Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata” sparks debate on cultural copyright

Global Business

Disney’s much-anticipated live-action remake of The Lion King is hitting cinemas around the world in 2019. But the hype hasn’t all been positive. It’s shining a spotlight on the issue of cultural copyright because of two little words,”Hakuna Matata.”

CGTN’s Maria Galang reports.

Made globally famous in 1994 by Disney’s blockbuster hit, the expression “Hakuna Matata” is a Swahili phrase and used almost daily in parts of East Africa.”

It’s also a lyric in the 1982 Swahili song “Jambo Bwana” by Kenyan group, Them Mushrooms. Swedish pop group Boney M was among other bands that also recorded versions in the 1980s – and it’s still performed today by hotel bands across East Africa.

Recently, many Kenyans and other Swahili speakers were shocked to discover that Disney had trademarked the catchphrase back in 1994, mainly for merchandising purposes. Many are questioning Disney’s right to profit from what they say is a cultural asset. Kenyan lawyer Liz Lenjo, says cultural assets aren’t that easy to define in a legal sense.

“We have to investigate, what do we mean by cultural assets, if you’re going to talk about maybe a technique of beading that we can say comes from the Taita or the Masai community, then that is different, but again the question of how can you identify this technique, becomes another question,” IP and Entertainment Lawyer Liz Lenjo said.

This isn’t the first time the issue of cultural asset appropriation has come up in the business world. Back in 2014 South Africa successfully stopped an attempt by France to trademark the name Rooibos, which is the name of a red bush tea grown only in South Africa. But just because Disney has trademarked the phrase Hakuna Matata, does that mean it’s totally out of bounds around the world?

“A Kenyan firm can use it, the question is where, like I said, intellectual propriety is generally territorial, so you then look at, is it registered in my county, if it’s not registered in my country, it’s fair game. If the transaction has happened here, and it’s not happening in the US, then there’s no infringement,” Lenjo said.

The issue of cultural copyright is still murky legal territory. But for Swahili speakers and other fans of the phrase ‘Hakuna Matata’ outside the U.S. copyright zones “no worries” or should we say, ‘Hakuna Matata’