India: Disney's Trademark Woes: No Worries?

Last Updated: 17 January 2019
Article by Sharmeen Shaikh
Most Read Contributor in India, January 2019

The year of 2019 has been regarded as the most promising year. It started with Disney's magnum opus announcement to deliver two motion pictures consecutively. The much loved 'Aladdin' and the popular 'Lion King', is all set to captivate the audience in the coming months. But, is everything hunky dory in the Disney world?

In the recent news, a brazen petition was undertaken by Mr. Shelton Mpala, to direct the Disney Company from relinquishing the trademark of the phrase "Hakuna Matata." The term is used in the movie "Lion King" by the characters of the movie 'Timon' and 'Pumba', as lyrics of a song. The term, in Swahili means "no problem" or "no worries." Disney had initially used the term in the 1994 animated movie "Lion King" and applied for a trademark of the same, which was granted to them, by the government of USA, in the year 2003. The term not only gained humungous popularity on a global scale, but also, it was extensively used for character merchandising in the USA.  However, it has come in the limelight recently, after the announcement of the much-awaited motion picture, with the same name.

What is a lesser known fact is that the term was first used in the song "Jambo Bwana" by the Kenyan band, Them Mushrooms, in the year 1982, which was a platinum hit. The catchy phrase was then picked up by Disney, for an animated movie showcasing African wilderness and habitat.

According to Mr. Mpala, it is unethical for Disney to trademark a phrase that is used across several countries in Africa like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, etc. His petition has been signed by more than 52,000 people, in an attempt to put an impediment on the Western culture to stop the unethical copy pasting and pilfering of other cultures and tradition. He accused Disney of gross misappropriation of culture and questions the fact as to how, a huge American company like Disney can assert an unlawful claim over something that is not indigenous to their country or culture?

This isn't the first time that Disney has attempted to trademark, without having appropriate right to do so. In the past, they tried to gain exclusive right over the phrase Dia de los Muertos (aka the Mexican Day of the Dead festival) with respect to their movie "Coco" which was set in a Mexican festival and culture. The phrase was to be acquired specifically for character merchandising but a huge uproar regarding the acquiring of the exclusive right, especially from the Mexican community mounted immense pressure on the company and ultimately, the company had to drop the efforts to do so.

The question here is: is it really an unethical practice by Disney to trademark the phrase? The exclusive right over the use of the term was granted to the Company several years ago. So, why wasn't there a hue-cry over it, back then? The issue here seems to be more of moral, rather than a legal one. The animated movie has been in existence, and on loop, since several years now. Be it movies, adaptations, plays, musicals, the movie and the phrase have been on the tip of the tongue of every person who was or is being exposed to this story or movie. So, why is there a sudden hullabaloo regarding the technical re-use of the phrase, by a company who has the legitimate right to use it? Why weren't the objections of western pilfering and the gross misappropriation of culture, raised initially? From an unbiased point of view, Disney has the right and the means to use what is rightfully and legally theirs. The allegations of the act having a colonial hint, is not applicable in today's time. On the contrary, the use of words such as "colonialism" is visible as an attempt to morally undermine and emotionally blackmail a Company into non-usage. This too, would be heralded as unethical and an unfair fight. Also, there is a possibility of the presence of a mala fide intention to cash in the popularity of the famous movie and company, in an attempt to stay in the limelight of media.


In the light of the above developments, some may opine that no matter how noble the efforts may seem, it might be a little too late by individuals at large, to put an impediment on the use of the phrase, because as per the Latin phrase "Vigilantibus Et Non Dormientibus Jura Subveniunt" the law helps those who are vigilant with their rights and not those sleep thereupon.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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