Wednesday, 5 December 2018


'Hakuna Matata'? You're missing the point.

Recently, there has been an uproar in Kenya initiated by this article about Disney's trademark for the phrase "Hakuna Matata". A reasoned response (here) clarified that the TM is valid only in the U.S., so no rights in East Africa are involved, and further argued that this is normal business behaviour and normal use of the TM system. Various articles have questioned the legality and morality of the TM (e.g., here), and the BBC ran a story about "unlikely" phrases that are trademarked.

Suffice to say a lot has been said about this. It's this blogger's turn!

Focusing on "hakuna matata" completely misses, excuse the phrase, the elephant in the room. Revenues from the movie (to date, including box office income and DVD sales, as reported here) are roughly 1.2B USD (that's more than 1% of Kenya's GDP). The Lion King musical has grossed substantially more - 8.1B USD to be exact (as reported here). So this single film (and the musical spin-off), a story taking place on the African Savannah, with African animals and African words/phrases, has grossed almost 10B USD for Disney, an American company.

So, while we are focusing so much energy on the TM (which truthfully provides extremely limited rights - only to the sale of T-shirts in America), we are losing sight of the bigger story. Disney's profit from African culture/imagery goes far, far beyond the simple two-word phrase. Could an African animation studio have produced a film like the Lion King? Possibly, although the marketing power of Disney is legendary and surely has much to do with the movie's success. Clearly, though, there was (and still is) a market for such entertainment. Can Africa capitalize on it? Shouldn't, perhaps, we engage more with the American market (and use the American intellectual property systems when doing so)? Millennials are craving anything "new" - experiences, culture, food, art - and Africans certainly can provide such things directly, rather than allowing an American company to reap all the benefits.
Let's not ignore the larger issue...
(Image licensed under CC0 license)

A few final comments, just for the record:

A search of the USPTO TESS database for trademarks is fascinating. Eighteen results are returned for "hakuna matata", five of which are either pending or granted and alive. This includes Disney's TM but also an intriguing entry by a Chinese company, filed 13 November (just three weeks ago!), for use of the phrase on toys and balloons. The timing of this application, filed just two weeks before the beginning of the uproar mentioned above, is more than a little curious.

A wider search of the database reveals that many common Swahili words are trademarked (often by multiple companies), including "chakula" (food), "nzuri" (good), and "jambo" (hello).

Finally, the Lion King has been the subject of more than TM infringement - plenty has been said (e.g., here and here) about the purported copyright infringement vis-a-vis Kimba The White Lion.



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6 December 2018 at 06:41 delete

This is the author of the above post with an addition. It appears that the timing of the "uproar" (as well as the Chinese company TM filing mentioned in the post) can be traced to the YouTube video movie trailer for the new Lion King re-make ( The trailer was released in November, and the movie is set for release in 2019.

11 December 2018 at 17:14 delete

Hi Isaac, it would not be bad if Africa's legal community started to take an own position on legal concepts, similar to e.g. Colombia's Supreme Court granting legal rights to the Amazonas ecosystem ( or the Australian native community protecting Ayers Rock (Uhuru) etc? That's not patronizing by some white-caucasian like me (I am half-Colombian) - it's all there, one just has to go for it. Trust to have been of help. Rodolfo