Last month, the Walt Disney Company was granted a US trademark for the popular Swahili phrase 'Hakuna Matata' and Kenyans were not really pleased with this.
According to records from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) , the Walt Disney Company has owned the phrase since August 8, 1994. It was recently renewed since they are renewed after every ten years. The trademark is registered under Class 25 for Clothing, Footwear and Headgear.
'Hakuna Matata' means 'no problems' or 'no worries'. The implications of this move are that no other organisation from the United States or other selected countries can use the phrase without written permission from Walt Disney. A contravention of this would probably mean a lawsuit would be underway.
Does this mean that in essence, Walt Disney now owns the phrase 'Hakuna Matata' and has robbed it from Swahili? The phrase first came into popularity through the song "Jambo Bwana" from the Kenyan band Them Mushrooms back in 1982. But it became immensely popular in many parts of the world through the animated film The Lion King by Disney in 1994. From then, in the creative circles, Disney essentially owned it.
Kenyan intellectual property lawyer Liz Lenjo argued that the move was for the protection of creative works. "The essence of trademarks is to protect where creativity is applied on language, symbols, colours, numbers to brand a product or good or service," she said.
Lenjo noted that since 'hakuna matata' is used in most Swahili-speaking countries it is "highly unlikely [Disney] registered in any East African countries because it’s a common phrase here, and they would not get exclusivity because of that."
She added that Kenyan creatives would likely still be able to use the phrase on shirts and in videos without infringing on Disney’s trademark right.
"It will most likely not infringe but it will depend on the context of the use of the phrase and territory," Lenjo said.
But, is this argument enough to thwart that of the unending quest for world dominance and more nuanced forms of colonialism? Why patent a phrase that you did not come up with? One could argue the phrase only works to the effect of glorifying capitalism by giving Disney super profits. There is a petition to get Disney to reverse their trademark on the basis of "robbing" Swahili of the term.
This is an interesting point of conversation and raises a lot of issues. On the one hand, Disney could only be doing this for creativity purposes, and on the other, this could be a subtle form of control over whoever the US deems to control.
Header image credit: Nairobi Wire