Since the release of “Jambo Bwana” by the Kenyan band The Mushrooms in 1984, “Hakuna matata” has become a mainstream phrase in Kenya’s tourism industry. The saying, a Swahili term meaning “no worries”, made its global debut in the Lion King movie in 1994 – decades after the song and millennia since Swahili became a language spoken by East African natives.

Because of the popularity of the franchise and its content, brought on by the 2019 live-action version of Lion King, it has become common knowledge that Disney has held the trademark for the popular phrase since the 2000s. This means that those who use it commercially could face a law suit from the film production company.

Although reports suggest that the trademark applies only in the United States, there is international uproar over Disney’s ownership of language and the cultural implications of such ownership. In fact, a petition has been launched to counter this perceived injustice by petition organiser Shelton Mpala. Mpala claims that the trademark is “colonialism and robbery; the appropriation of something you have no right over”.

The petition’s call to action reads, “Disney has trademarked the Swahili phrase Hakuna matata. Join us and say NO to DISNEY or any corporations/individuals looking to trademark languages, terms or phrases they didn’t invent.”

“Hakuna matata has been used by most Kiswahili-speaking countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Disney can’t be allowed to trademark something that it didn’t invent.”

The petition has so far garnered more than 3 000 signatures.

Other disgruntled people have taken to social media to express their fervent disapproval. Some of the comments include:

Good business?

Although the general consensus is that of outrage, there are also sentiments indicating that Africa is failing itself by not attaining patents for its mainstream cultural assets first. However, this notion demonstrates a further lack of knowledge of how intellectual property works.

Disney can only apply the trademark in territories where it has exclusivity, as intellectual property lawyer Liz Lenjo explained to Word Is. “The essence of trademarks is to protect where creativity is applied on language, symbols, colours or numbers to brand a product or good or service.”

“It is highly unlikely that they registered in any East African countries because it’s a common phrase here, and they would not get exclusivity because of that. Nobody owns it and Kenyans need to move away from trying to own everything.

Read: 6 questions about cultural appropriation and African identity

“If we were to go that route, then we owe the Brits royalties for everyone who speaks English, or France for when we speak French.”

She went on to elaborate that as a Swahili-speaking native, it would still be possible to use the phrase commercially without infringement, depending on “the context of the use of the phrase and the territory”.

There are, however, some cultural assets that can be trademarked, as was showcased by the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI), which was created to challenge companies referring to or copying the signature Maasai style without a licensing agreement.

The initiative’s website explains: “Nearly 80 per cent of the Maasai population in Kenya and Tanzania are living below the poverty line. Yet their distinctive and iconic cultural brand and intellectual property concepts have been used commercially around the globe.”

It is therefore important, in the interest of safeguarding culture and for upward mobility, to dispel the many incorrect assumptions that exist about trademarks and the IP rights system in general.