Zimbabwean activist Shelton Mpala started an online petition calling on Disney to relinquish its trademark of the phrase, which is commonly used in eastern and southern Africa and loosely translates to “no problems” or “no worries.”
“While we respect Disney as an entertainment institution responsible for creating many of our childhood memories, 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,” Mpala writes in the Change.org petition, which has more than 130,000 signatures.
calling on Disney to drop the trademark, which it described as an “assault on the Swahili people and Africa as a whole.”
Disney applied for the trademark in 1994, to coincide with the release of the animated film whose hit song of the same title popularized the phrase in the English-speaking world. The filing was intended to protect the company’s use of “hakuna matata” on Lion King-related merchandise, and prevents others from cashing in on its intellectual property.
“Disney’s registration for ‘Hakuna Matata’ T-shirts, which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase,” the company said in a statement.
Plenty of other popular phrases have been trademarked over the years, Disney notes, including “Yahoo!,” “Vaya con Dios (Go with God),” “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings.” None of these trademarks prevent people from using these words or phrases in conversation.
The Burbank entertainment giant isn’t the only U.S. company to trademark the expression. A wedding company in South Florida and a New York-based maker vitamins and dietary supplements also hold trademarks on specific uses of “hakuna matata.”
Still, the petition calling on Disney to drop the trademark described it as an “assault on the Swahili people and Africa as a whole.” A column in the Kenyan newspaper Daily Business appears to have stoked the unrest. It characterized Disney’s trademark of the expression as an example of cultural appropriation.
“It is unfortunate that there has been a lot of pilferage of African culture over the years, through the use of intellectual property rights,” wrote Cathy Mputhia. “This means that heritage that ought to belong to a certain group of people is instead pilfered using legal methods, whereby third parties end up being awarded sole rights.”
Not everyone agrees with this interpretation. A Kenyan intellectual property and entertainment lawyer told CNN that social media and the Internet have inflamed the issue and created needless confusion.
“The use of ‘Hakuna Matata’ by Disney does not take away the value of the language,” Liz Lenjo told CNN. “East Africans or whoever speaks Swahili worldwide are not restricted from using the phrase.”