Trademarking “Hakuna Mata”: A Problem Free Philosophy For IP?

Even as we were bidding adieu to 2018, one of the most contentious IP issues cropped up. Thanks to Disney’s trademark over Hakuna Matata (from the Lion King) and an online petition protesting against this blatant cultural (mis)appropriation! I reflect on this in the Hindustan Times and excerpt some portions below. Hardly a stress free issue. But then again, these are complex cases not amenable to easy resolution. The best we can do is to continue to debate and remain open to plural perspectives. And on that note, here’s wishing all of you a wonderful New Year from all of us at SpicyIP.

Excerpts from HT piece on Disney’s trademarking of Hakuna Matata.

“Recently, I did a session on “stress relief” for law students who are part of IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education), a project to empower underprivileged communities through legal education. A key part of the session involved the use of music to beat stress. To this end, I played them ‘Hakuna matata’, a smash hit from Disney’s musical blockbuster The Lion King. Hakuna translates roughly to “there is/are no” and Matata means “problem(s)”. Taken together, this Swahili phrase, as the song itself goes, “…means no worries, for the rest of your days. A problem free philosophy”.

Little was I to know that even as this number was being belted out at the Indian Law Institute (ILI) in Delhi (the situs of our stress relief session), an online petition was doing the rounds, protesting Disney’s misappropriation of “Hakuna Matata”. Way back in 1994, Disney filed a trademark application for this phrase, which finally converted to a grant in 2003. However, it is only recently that this appropriation began to attract some attention, thanks to Disney’s announcement of a live-action remake of the old classic.

Many have decried this as yet another example of cultural misappropriation by a first world corporation. What is even more striking is that Disney wasn’t even the first to popularise this term through music. Rather, a Kenyan band (“Them Mushrooms”) deployed this in 1982 for their celebrated single “Jambo Bwana”. Why then did Disney go out of their way to blatantly appropriate an indigenous African phrase as its own trademark?


While Disney’s actions may pass legal muster, what of ethics? For many see this as a moral issue, triggering memories of an oppressive colonial past. To make matters worse, this is not first time that Disney has been accused of such misappropriation. Some years ago, it tried to trademark “Dia de los Muertos”, the name of a Mexican festival meant to commemorate the dead. This was in relation to “Coco”, another Disney blockbuster which released last year, and is themed around the Mexican festival.

Fortunately, in the light of widespread protests, Disney backed down and abandoned its trademark application. But will it do the same with Hakuna Matata? For one, the term does not boast any special religious or spiritual significance. Second, the term is not endemic to any one indigenous group or community. Third, the trademark application has already converted to a grant; so no question of abandoning it.

….But what can be done? While many call for new legal norms, the law comes with its own set of constraints. Particularly in a dispute as complex as this, involving issues of culture, anthropology, economics and politics.”

ps: Image from here.

Shamnad Basheer

Prof. (Dr.) Shamnad Basheer founded SpicyIP in 2005. He's also the Founder of IDIA, a project to train underprivileged students for admissions to the leading law schools. He served for two years as an expert on the IP global advisory council (GAC) of the World Economic Forum (WEF). In 2015, he received the Infosys Prize in Humanities in 2015 for his work on legal education and on democratising the discourse around intellectual property law and policy. The jury was headed by Nobel laureate, Prof. Amartya Sen. Professional History: After graduating from the NLS, Bangalore Prof. Basheer joined Anand and Anand, one of India’s leading IP firms. He went on to head their telecommunication and technology practice and was rated by the IFLR as a leading technology lawyer. He left for the University of Oxford to pursue post-graduate studies, completing the BCL, MPhil and DPhil as a Wellcome Trust scholar. His first academic appointment was at the George Washington University Law School, where he served as the Frank H Marks Visiting Associate Professor of IP Law. He then relocated to India in 2008 to take up the MHRD Chaired Professorship in IP Law at WB NUJS, a leading Indian law school. Later, he was the Honorary Research Chair of IP Law at Nirma University and also a visiting professor of law at the National Law School (NLS), Bangalore. Prof. Basheer has published widely and his articles have won awards, including those instituted by ATRIP, the Stanford Technology Law Review and CREATe. He was consulted widely by the government, industry, international organisations and civil society on a variety of IP issues. He also served on several government committees.

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