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Trademarking Hakuna Matata isn’t An Aberration About Africa, It’s The Point Of The System

Disney has decided to go ahead with – as they thought about but didn’t some time ago –  the trademarking of the phrase Hakuna Matata. According to some this is a gross aberration of what should be, perhaps a sterling example of how capitalism and the whitebread rip off Africa. On the contrary, this is actually the point and purpose of the trademark system, it’s the very thing it is built for.

There is also that delicious little observation that it’s a phrase in Swahili, not actually an African language at all but rather an imposed one, a trading pidgin or creole perhaps. Imposed rather to aid in that Arab slave trade which so exploited the east coast of the continent over so many more centuries than the Atlantic trade disrupted the west.But then as we all know exploitation by semites is qualitatively different from what looks like the same exploitation by pinkish Europeans, isn’t it?

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Trademarking ‘hakuna matata’ is a tipping point in Disney’s portrayal of Africa
Namwali Serpell
Hollywood has long used stereotypical tropes in depicting African culture – but this Lion King move goes too far[/perfectpullquote]

Well, what’s the point of a trademark? It’s all part of this public goods problem, invention and innovation. People who expend value to create something – an invention and thus patents, art perhaps and so copyright, a brand or an image thus trademarks – often enough create value that the rest of us enjoy. Sadly though it’s the original invention which has the cost, copying once that value has been expended to create is trivially cheap. Thus fewer people than we think is optimal will expend to create and we’re the poorer for it.

The solution is to grant – invent actually – a legal exclusivity to that which value has been expended to create. Do note the implication of this – we’re saying that all markets all the time nothing but markets is not the optimal solution. This is a correction to a free market, not an outcome nor effect of them.

So, has Disney spent lots to create the value associated with the phrase? Sure it has. Kiddies don’t want t-shirts with an East African creole for “no worries” on them because they wish to celebrate the glory and diversity of humanity’s home continent. They do so because of that damn cartoon warthog. Disney created the value, Disney should gain some of the value created. Not because it’s righteous or just, but because this incentive encourages the next to come along with an idea to expend wealth to create value we might all enjoy.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] There is backlash to the blacklash, of course. This is just PC nonsense, it’s just a song, just an animal movie. But this is precisely the problem with these cultural products: they paint this “Africa” as an imaginary space but nevertheless use broad, stereotypical tropes about the continent (animals and warrior tribes and mangled accents). This inaccuracy is longstanding and pervasive in Hollywood, from Coming to America to Hotel Rwanda. Why is this the tipping point? Disney is too big to ignore, for one thing. But there is a patent absurdity to the idea that hakuna matata would be subject to trademark. It’s like copyrighting “goodbye” or “hang loose”. [/perfectpullquote]


[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Let’s Get Ready To Rumble: Famed wrestling and boxing announcer Michael Buffer must have known his catchphrase would take off when he started using it in the ‘80s. Since having it trademarked in 1992, he’s reportedly made $400 million by licensing one of the most famous phrases to be used in movies, commercials, video games, you name it. That’s Hot: Paris Hilton made her catchphrase famous on her reality show, The Simple Life, and later acquired three trademarks for it: one for use in men’s and women’s clothing, one for electronic devices, and one for alcoholic beverages. In 2007, she sued Hallmark for putting the expression and her image on a greeting card—and won. [/perfectpullquote]

Note what happens with a trademark. It applies to a rather narrow range of products. The Bass triangle – one of the oldest extant trademarks – applies to beer’n’stuff. Royalties were not paid for the pink triangle yellow star stuff. It’s not Hakuna Matata which is or even can be trademarked. It’s applications of the phrase.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Let’s Roll: A motivating phrase for a somber reason, “Let’s roll” was trademarked by the Todd M. Beamer Foundation, now called Heroic Choices. Todd Beamer was a passenger on United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. He and other passengers worked together to overtake the hijackers piloting the plane and ultimately crashed the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. His last words, overheard by an airphone supervisor, were, “Are you ready? Let’s roll.” [/perfectpullquote]

That’s pretty close to hang loose, isn’t it?

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As with copyrights, legal rights to trademarks arise automatically without governmental formalities. But unlike copyrights, trademark rights don’t begin at the moment a word, symbol, or phrase is first scribbled on paper. Rather, trademark rights stem from the actual use of a distinctive mark in commerce.[/perfectpullquote]

Disney’s definitely using Hakuna Matata as a distinctive mark in commerce – it’s righteously a trademark.

But then explaining economics to The Guardian is like trying to explain the historic oppression of the melanin enhanced to a whitebread pinkish chap like me, isn’t it?

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Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
5 years ago

Pidgin not pigeon (autocorrect strikes again?)

Dodgy Geezer
Dodgy Geezer
5 years ago

Phrases in English – as Mr Worstall has commented – are trademarked and copyrighted all the time.

I don’t know if this is the first time a Swahili phrase has received world-wide appreciation and been legally protected – but it must be a very early example. So you might think that this is a cause for anti-racist celebration – Swahili is gaining acceptance with European languages in its own terms!

That’s how it would be presented by the Guardian if it had been an African company trademarking it.

5 years ago

isiZulu actually. The phrase is the title of a song from the musical Ipi Tombi (Where is the Maiden), an export from South Africa in the 1970s.

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