The Swahili phrase “hakuna matata” might be a wonderful phrase, but does Disney have the right to trademark it? That’s what Shelton Mpala wants to know, as the Zimbabwean activist has recently launched an online petition urging The House of Mouse to give up their claim to the motto. You see, the delightful expression “Hakuna Matata” isn’t just the title of a catchy tune from Disney’s animated classic THE LION KING. It’s first and foremost a phrase that’s commonly used in eastern and southern Africa, and loosely translates to “no problems” or “no worries.” It’s like the Swahili equivalent of Jamaica’s “Yeah, mon!”
In addition to Mpala referring to Disney’s claim of the saying as an “assault on the Swahili people and Africa as a whole,” the Change.org petition also states the following:
“While we respect Disney as an entertainment institution responsible for creating many of our childhood memories, the decision to trademark ‘Hakuna Matata’ is predicated purely on greed and is an insult not only the spirit of the Swahili people but also, Africa as a whole,” Mpala writes in the Change.org petition, which at the time of my writing this article has amassed total of 142,437 signatures toward its 150,000 goal. Naturally, the desired amount of supporters will increase as Mpala and company near each milestone.
The petition continues:
“Disney’s registration for ‘Hakuna Matata’ T-shirts, which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase,” the company said in a statement.
Plenty of other popular phrases have been trademarked over the years, Disney notes, including “Yahoo!,” “Vaya con Dios (Go with God),” “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings.” None of these trademarks prevent people from using these words or phrases in conversation.
The Burbank entertainment giant isn’t the only U.S. company to trademark the expression. A wedding company in South Florida and a New York-based maker vitamins and dietary supplements also hold trademarks on specific uses of “hakuna matata.”
For those of you who’re trying to do the math, allow me to save you the trouble. Disney actually applied for the trademark all the way back in 1994, as a part of the lead up to their animated version of THE LION KING, which stars the voices of Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. Now, I know what you’re thinking: If Disney applied for the trademark all the way back in ’94, why attack them now? Apparently, the petition’s call to arms was sparked by a column in the Kenyan newspaper Daily Business, which targets Disney’s trademark of the motto as an act of cultural appropriation.
“It is unfortunate that there has been a lot of pilferage of African culture over the years, through the use of intellectual property rights,” Cathy Mputhia wrote in the damning piece. “This means that heritage that ought to belong to a certain group of people is instead pilfered using legal methods, whereby third parties end up being awarded sole rights.”
But wait, there’s more! In an effort to combat the petition’s legitimacy, Kenyan intellectual property and entertainment lawyer, Liz Lenjo, recently told CNN that “The use of ‘Hakuna Matata’ by Disney does not take away the value of the language.” She then added, “East Africans or whoever speaks Swahili worldwide are not restricted from using the phrase.”
What do you think of the idea of Disney trademarking the phrase “Hakuna Matata?” Do you think it’s afront to Swahili culture, or should the opposing individuals adopt a “no worries” attitude about the whole thing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.