Johannesburg vs. Mickey Mouse

The family of Zulu migrant miner Solomon Linda, is suing WaltDisney Co. for infringement of copyright on “The Lion SleepsTonight,” the song originally called “Mbube” waswritten by Linda as a lament of the miners’ workingconditions in South Africa.

Linda sold the worldwide copyright for “Mbube”to a local firm, but under British laws in effect at the time,those rights should have reverted to his heirs 25 years after hisdeath in 1962, copyright lawyer Owen Dean said.

“The family is entitled to royalties, butthere has also been a misappropriation of South African culture –the song is thought to be American,” Dean said. 

Malawian born, South African recording artistwith the group Blk Sonshine, Masauko Chipembere agrees saying,”Americas contributions are always recognized in Africa, butAfrica’s contributions are never recognized inAmerica.”  He adds that stolen songs are oftenmistranslated and meanings are taken out of context in order toperpetuate racism and negative stereotypes about thecontinent.  “The songs they are stealing are made byfolks who are in urban centers, they go to the Sears and eat atMcDonalds; they don’t come from jungles.”  

Folk singer Pete Seeger came across the songin New York in 1949 and called it Wimoweh as he misheard its Zululyrics, then songwriter George David Weiss rewrote the song as”The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  However, in 1961, theTokens recorded the song and added the English lyrics starting with”In the jungle, the mighty jungle.”  Since then, more than 150different artists have featured the song and at least 15 movies andstage musicals have recorded the song.  

Although many productions have used the hitsong, Disney has been identified as the “most active user” of thesong including in the 1994 blockbuster film “The Lion King” andspin-off musicals.  

A total of 240 trademarks, including MickeyMouse and Donald Duck, were cited in the order by a South Africancourt handed down on June 29, including the song itself, which hasearned an estimated $15 million in royalties; however,Linda’s impoverished family have only received about $15,000,according to South African lawyers.  “We are claiming $1.6million in damages from Disney at the moment,” Dean told reporters,not even half of the amount Disney made using the song. 

Disney lawyer Danie Price argued in court thatthe executor of Linda’s estate was targeting the wrong company andshould have sued a Disney subsidiary, Walt Disney Pictures andTelevision, which produced the film “The Lion King.”  

Price also claimed that Linda’s late wifeRegina and his daughters had assigned their rights to the song andhad received royalties in 1983 and 1992, the SAPA news agencyreported.  

When asked how he felt about the Linda familygoing up against American media giant Walt Disney, Chipemberereplied, “Anybody can bring up a law suit, the question is ifthey will win.”