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Is Disney's 'Hakuna Matata' trademark cultural appropriation?

Some people might not think that a phrase that's common in another language could be trademarked by a company -- let alone an American one. However, with the success of The Lion King 25 years ago, Disney trademarked the phrase "Hakuna Matata." It means "no worries" in Swahili. It's also, of course, the title of one of the songs from the hit movie and Broadway show. A new live-action version of The Lion King will be in movie theaters this summer.

However, tens of thousands of people have signed a petition calling on Disney to drop the trademark. The petition accuses the entertainment behemoth of cultural appropriation. It calls Disney's trademarking of the phrase "an assault on the Swahili people and Africa as a whole." It's portrayed as an example of what one business newspaper in Kenya has called the "pilferage of African culture over the years, through the use of intellectual property rights."

Trademark experts, however, argue that Disney isn't trying to prevent all use of the phrase. It only sought the trademark to prevent other companies from using it to sell clothing or other products that would exploit the Disney brand. In fact, companies in other industries have also trademarked the phrase.

A spokesperson for Disney notes that "for many years, trademarks have been registered for popular words and phrases…without impeding the use of these phrases and words in any cultural way." Ironically, knock-off Lion King t-shirts and other products can be found in markets throughout Africa.

One commercial law professor says, "People talk about appropriation, but a trademark is all about appropriation of language within a narrow commercial sphere…." The professor questions, however, "whether it was a sensible commercial decision for the Disney brand...[and] does it get damaged from bad publicity from having that trademark?"

Companies can help protect their reputation, their brand and their financial viability through trademarks and other types of intellectual property. These can help them take those who violate their intellectual property rights to court if necessary. If you believe you have cause for legal action, seek experienced legal guidance.

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