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Disney and the Trademark Dispute Over 'Hakuna Matata'

Disney and the Trademark Dispute Over 'Hakuna Matata'
Signage is seen during the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" at the Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019, in Hollywood, California. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

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Monday, 19 August 2019 02:40 PM Current | Bio | Archive

After both of us independently watched the newly reincarnated "Lion King" movie over the weekend, I recently (and unwittingly) entered into a rather heated debate with a professional acquaintance of mine, who I shall for the sake of anonymity call Peter.

Peter would not dispute my characterization of him as a left-wing Bernie supporter. Peter is also a lawyer, although of a different variety than myself, and is fundamentally skeptical of the idea that any idea is ever really new and consequently, “ownable.” Indeed, Peter takes issue with the very notion of possessing exclusive, intellectual property rights and does not believe that an individual or company should have the legal means to effectively remove ideas from the market.

The conversation quickly traversed several domains of inquiry, including legal, philosophical, and most contentiously, “social justice.”

Why did watching the Lion King spark such a debate? Well, because since 1994, Disney has a USPTO registered trademark on the movie’s perhaps most memorable phrase, “Hakuna Matata,” for the Goods, “t-shirts,” and Common Law Rights to the Trademark in connection with “toys, clothing, accessories etc.”

In an amazing display of temerity, on November 13, 2018, Qianhai Qishen Supply Chain Management Shenzhen Co., Ltd., a Chinese company, sought registration on the trademark, “Hakuna Matata” for a nearly identical set of goods already protected by Disney’s trademark. The USPTO admitted the Chinese company’s trademark and on July 31, 2019, Disney filed a trademark opposition to the registration of the Chinese company’s trademark due to the “Likelihood of Confusion” between Disney’s mark and the Chinese company’s mark.

Thus, the debate began; should Disney prima facie be able to monopolize a saying taken from the Swahili language and how should this question be viewed in an age of political and social “wokeness”?

Fundamentally, Peter finds it imperialistic and exploitive of Disney to “usurp” a cultural treasure for its own “greed.” This sentiment is unfortunately not new and in late 2018, Zimbabwean political activist Shelton Mpala launched a Change.org petition in preparation for the movie’s release that today is still garnering new signatures (the campaign is now approaching 200,000 signatures.)

According to the Mpala, the purpose of the petition is to convince Disney to renounce its trademark rights to the phrase “Hakuna Matata.” Why is this reasonable?

As stated by Mpala, “Disney can’t be allowed to trademark something that it didn’t invent… 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...(it) sullies the very spirit of the term to begin with.”

This is at least a refreshingly honest expression of how Social-Justice types view the “evils” of capitalism. For Mpala and Peter, Disney not only doesn’t have a legal right to trademark Hakuna Matata (they’re wrong) but its mere use of a foreign phrase in commerce actually insults the spirit of the entire African Continent.

Personally, I find this proposition to be rather bizarre (what precisely is the spirit of Africa?) and it is not obvious to me why Disney’s effective use and marketing of “Hakuna Matata” in any way subordinates the phrases’ cultural heritage or value. But more unsettling, there seems to be something oddly nativist about this zero-sum contest; Hakuna Matata is OUR language and you do not have the right to use it.

This sort of thinking seems to be deeply at odds with the broader message of inclusion and diversity I often find myself subjected to by Peter at the water cooler.

In any event, as a matter of United States trademark law, it is indisputable that Disney has supremely strong trademark rights over the phrase “Hakuna Matata,” specifically for its stated Goods of toys, clothing, accessories and the other items listed in its Trademark opposition to the Chinese company’s trademark registration.

Consider for the moment the longevity and staying-power of the movie. "The Lion King" has been a perennial family favorite since the 1990’s and with the movie’s latest reboot and its unprecedented use of mind-blowing anthropomorphism, the movie has cemented its legacy with a new generation of fans and disciples for untold decades.

Remember, the purpose of a trademark is to serve as a source identifier; when a consumer sees the trademark, be it a name, logo, or slogan, used in conjunction with a good or service, the consumer immediately understands which company it is that is the proprietor of that good.

Is there any doubt that the general public immediately associates "Hakuna Matata"-branded lunchboxes with Disney’s "The Lion King?" It’s hard to imagine a world in which the answer to this question would be ‘no.’ Mpala might think that “Hakuna Matata” belongs to Africa but Disney says it belongs to us.

Abe Cohn is an attorney at Cohn Legal Group, a specialty group of a larger law firm, designed specifically to provide a boutique experience for entrepreneurs. Abe’s area of expertise is intellectual property and startup law. On judicial interpretation, Abe is a firm believer that constitutional originalism is the only viable and indeed sustainable judicial philosophy by which the courts may approach the interpretation of legal texts. Abe’s views on matters of the law are fundamentally rooted in his orientation towards a civil-libertarian approach to the role of government vis-a-vis individual freedoms. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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AbeCohn
After both of us independently watched the newly reincarnated "Lion King" movie over the weekend, I recently (and unwittingly) entered into a rather heated debate with a professional acquaintance of mine, who I shall for the sake of anonymity call Peter.
disney, hakuna matata, lion king
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2019-40-19
Monday, 19 August 2019 02:40 PM
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