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'Ludicrous': Calls For Disney To Drop 'Hakuna Matata' Trademark

It translates to "no trouble" or "no worries", but it also means much more than that.

You've no doubt heard or sung along to the phrase popularised in the wildly popular Disney classic The Lion King. 

What you may not know is that Disney trademarked the phrase when the film was released.

But its origins run much deeper. With a live remake on the way, there are growing calls to drop the trademark that is accused of appropriating and exploiting African culture.

READ MORE: First Look At Disney's Live-Action Remake Of The Lion King Released

Image: Disney

"Hakuna matata" is a Swahili greeting that is commonly used in eastern African countries including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ly Imo is from Tanzania and has been living in Melbourne for several years as chairperson of the African Communities Foundation.

He told 10 daily the phrase is part of everyday language.

"It's our response to someone asking how you are -- 'hakuna matata' essentially means 'no worries, I'm okay'," he said.

"It's on placards on buses and in stores... every mother, child and elderly person would know this phrase."

"Sure, the film has popularised it, but there's deeper meaning: this is us saying, 'come to Africa, look beyond the poverty and find the positive things'."

But Imo, like many, was unaware the phrase had been trademarked.

"The way I see it, it's akin to a big corporation coming and saying 'g'day mate' belongs to them."

"It's ludicrous that Disney would claim it as theirs."

Disney first applied to trademark the phrase in 1994 -- the same year it released The Lion King animation. It was registered nine years later.

Trademarks are placed on goods and services with the aim of helping consumers identifying their source.

According to Associate Professor Isabella Alexander, from the University of Technology Sydney's Faculty of Law,  it also ensures all merchandise emanates from Disney.

"It's another way of advertising for Disney and helps to build a customer base for particular products which, in this case, is movies," she told 10 daily.

"Disney has certainly exposed the phrase; it's extremely famous so it would be a valuable brand for it to try and exploit."

But this is problematic. While the trademark doesn't stop people from using the phrase in conversation, it blocks other entities from printing it on similar merchandise, such as T-shirts.

"In a commercial sense, it could have the effect of alienating part of the language from the people who speak it," she said.

Shelton Mpala, a Zimbabwan activist, is behind a change.org petition calling on Disney to drop the trademark.

In it, he likens the corporation's ownership of the phrase to "colonialism and robbery".

"The reason I started this petition is to draw attention to the appropriation of African culture and the importance of protecting African identity, heritage and culture from being exploited for financial gain by third parties," he wrote.

"Disney can't be allowed to trademark something it didn't invent."

Critics say it's part of a long history of appropriation in Africa and among other Indigenous cultures.

"People are certainly becoming more sensitive to the uses of cultural expression and folk culture, so it's an important conversation to be had," said Alexander.

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But when it comes to intellectual property law, she said there weren't easy answers.

"It's a western construct and is limited to commercial undertakings, but as we're seeing it does impact on culture," Alexander said.

"There are also positive aspects of taking culture to the world more broadly -- it's a matter of doing so in a way that isn't exploitative or recolonising these cultures."

The change.org petition is quickly gaining traction. At time of writing, it has attracted over 63,700 signatures.

Imo will be adding his name.

"Certainly, I'm not happy about this and will be passing it onto others," he said.

Disney is yet to comment.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au