Remember Louis Vuitton’s Maasai-“inspired” 2012 Spring-Summer collection? That was the most high-profile case of uncompensated use of the Maasai’s name, image or reputation last year, but Louis Vuitton is far from the only culprit.

Value of the Maasai brand
There are up to 80 companies around the world using either the Maasai image or name, according to Light Years IP, an NGO specialising in intellectual property rights in developing countries, and the total amount made off the Maasai name by these companies is in the billions. And they don’t even bother – or need – to ask for permission. The Maasai brand is worth $10 million Dollars a year, at least, according to Ron Layton, the founder and head of Light Years IP; meanwhile, 80% of the Maasai live below the poverty line. Well, it looks like the Maasai have had enough of freely inspiring everybody; the free ride might not be free for much longer, if the Maasai elders have their way.

the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative

Intellectual Property Initiative
And about time, too. You can read the 7 goals of the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative here, but essentially the plan is to license the use of the Maasai name, image or reputation on a case-by-case basis so they the Maasai not only get to decide who is allowed to use their name, but also how it is used. At the moment, people look at the Maasai beads, for instance, and think, that’s pretty, without realising that each bead’s colour actually means something to the Maasai. It’s a matter of respect as much as it is about financial compensation. “I think people need to understand the culture of the others and respect it,” Maasai leader and elder Isaac ole Tialolo is Maasai told the BBC. “You should not use it to your own benefit, leaving the community – or the owner of the culture – without anything.” Absolutely. In fact, how categorically different, really, is what these companies are doing from what fashion counterfeiters do?

The Maasai elders
When we posted that piece last year, we thought it was too late to protect the brand, since items like the shuka had been in the public domain for so long, but while patenting is out of the question, the intellectual property route might not be. Nothing is certain yet, because international IP law is not really suited to this kind of case, according to Ben Goodger, an IP law expert quoted on the BBC’s website. And before pursuing intellectual property protection, the Maasai elders need to get the whole community on board, which is not the easiest of tasks when the estimated 3 million Maasai are spread over a huge area of land stretching from northern Tanzania to Kenya.

In that BBC article, Ben Goodger says the companies enjoying their free ride may not give up that easily, but I wonder if social pressure might help in tipping the balance. Starbucks initially refused to sign the voluntary code designed by Light Years IP to protect Ethiopian coffee, but gave in once Oxfam and other NGOs threw their weight behind the campaign. If Oxfam lends its active support to a voluntary code for the Maasai name and image – rather than just supporting it in principle – and publicises the names of the freeloading companies so their customers know they’re ripping off the Maasai, I doubt the offending companies will refuse to sign with that kind of bad publicity. After all, what’s $10 million to companies like LVMH and Land Rover-owner Tata Motors? True, coffee is in an entirely different category to cultural property, but a voluntary code worked for the Aborigines in Australia, who had been in the same position as the Maasai until 15 years ago when the code was secured.

“We all know that we have been exploited by people who just come around, take our pictures and benefit from it,” says Maasai leader and elder Isaac ole Tialolo. “We have been exploited by so many things you cannot imagine.”

It’s time for the exploitation to stop.