New Jersey fans of Disney's "The Lion King" franchise may be surprised to learn that the entertainment company trademarked a traditional African phrase as part of its promotion for the associated films. Disney is beginning to promote a live-action remake underway of the classic animated film. "Hakuna matata," a Swahili phrase that can be translated as "no problems," is a significant theme of the family film. However, a Zimbabwean activist is protesting the American company's trademark on the phrase, which is widely used throughout eastern and southern Africa.
The activist has garnered 130,000 signatures on an online petition denouncing the Disney trademark on the phrase. While the petition expresses appreciation for Disney's entertainment media, it denounces the trademark as "an insult" to Swahili people and Africa as a whole, noting that the decision was "predicated purely on greed." Disney registered for the trademark in 1994 at the time of the animated film's release. However, this is not the only trademarking of the phrase; wedding and vitamin companies have also trademarked its use for specific types of products.
Criticism of the Disney trademark has received coverage in some African media outlets, often highlighting concerns about legacies of colonialism and cultural appropriation. However, the company has indicated that their trademark does not prevent people from using the phrase and only is intended to protect Disney's right to create "hakuna matata"-themed Lion King merchandise without others using its intellectual property. "Hakuna matata" is not the only common phrase that has been trademarked; even common phrases like "Merry Christmas" have been protected for specific product categories.
Protecting intellectual property can be an important step for many businesses, but the process is often poorly understood. Business owners or inventors can consult with an intellectual property attorney about the steps that they can take to protect their creative developments.