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Disney accused of cultural appropriation for trademark of 'Hakuna Matata'

The phrase was popularized in Disney's 'Lion King' movie

Screenshot from Disney's "The Lion King"

Disney trademarked the Swahili phrase "Hakuna Matata" in 1994, the year the movie "The Lion King" was released. Now, with a remake of the movie due next year, a petition is accusing Disney of cultural appropriation, saying the trademark is "predicated purely on greed and is an insult not only to the spirit of the Swahili people but also, Africa as a whole."

Who started this? Shelton Mpala, an activist from Zimbabwe, created the petition, which has been signed more than 140,000 times as of Friday evening. Mpala told CNN he started it "to draw attention to the appropriation of African culture and the importance of protecting our heritage, identity and culture from being exploited for financial gain by third parties."

"The term 'Hakuna Matata' is not a Disney creation hence not an infringement on intellectual or creative property, but an assault on the Swahili people and Africa as a whole," Mpala wrote on the petition website. "It sets a terrible precedence and sullies the very spirit of the term to begin with."

What does Disney say about it? A Disney spokesperson pointed out that, in addition to being filed more than 20 years ago, the trademark only applies to T-shirts.

"Disney's registration for 'Hakuna Matata' T-shirts, which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase," a Disney spokesperson said in a statement. "Indeed, for many years, trademarks have been registered for popular words and phrases such as 'Yahoo!', 'Vaya con Dios (Go with God),' 'Merry Christmas,' and 'Seasons Greetings' without impeding the use of these phrases and words in any cultural way."

A social media-created controversy? Liz Lenjo, an intellectual property and entertainment lawyer who is Kenyan, did not agree with the premise of the petition, and said social media backlash is "blowing things out of proportion."

"The use of 'Hakuna Matata' by Disney does not take away the value of the language," Lenjo said to CNN. "East Africans or whoever speaks Swahili worldwide are not restricted from using the phrase. The conversation on the internet has been blowing up because of a misconception and misunderstanding around intellectual property law, the ethos behind intellectual property law and the various regimes of protection."


The Lion King - Hakuna Matata (HD) www.youtube.com

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