Lion King Case Illustrates Overlap Between Copyright and Traditional Cultural Expressions

By Wanjiku Karanja**
The Disney animated movie “The Lion King” is a fixture of popular culture having generated millions of dollars in revenue for Disney since its 1994 release. It is however the controversy surrounding the origin and rights thus appertaining to its title song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” that forms the subject of this blogpost.
In 1939, a Zulu entertainer called Solomon Linda recorded a song called “Mbube” (Zulu for Lion) which was a hit throughout Southern Arica selling nearly 100,000 copies. This song incorporated a Zulu war cry (“Uyimbube”) in its melody. Linda unfortunately assigned his worldwide copyright to his song to the Gallo Record Company for a consideration of 10 shillings. In 1950, the song came to the attention of Pete Seeger who transcribed it and made his own song that he called “Wimoweh”, which was later incorporated in “The Lion King” as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.

After Linda’s death, the American music publishing company, Folkways, which had gained control of “Wimoweh”, exacted for a consideration of one dollar; an assignment of his widow’s rights to the renewal term of “Wimoweh” under copyright law. Upon her death, they exacted a further assignment of worldwide rights to “Mbube” from her daughters for another dollar. In the year 2000, an article was published in the “Rolling Stone” magazine exposing these machinations and estimating that the song had generated 15 million dollars from its use in “The Lion King” alone. This article caused an outcry in South Africa where Linda’s daughters were living in abject poverty.
Due to the publicity generated by this article, Owen Dean, a South African copyright lawyer brought an action on behalf of Linda’s family staking a claim to proceeds from the “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” version, the acknowledgment of the South African origin of the song and Linda’s role in creating it. He relied on little known legal provision: Section 5(2) of the 1911 Imperial Copyright Act, a statute of general application in South Africa during the life of Solomon Linda, which states that:
“where an author assigned his copyright during his lifetime, 25 years after his death the copyright reverted to the Executor of his estate, as an asset in that estate, notwithstanding any other assignments of copyright which might have taken place in the meantime”
This “reversionary copyright” had therefore been vested in the Executor since 1987 (i.e. 25 years after Solomon Linda’s death) and did not become the property of his widow or daughters unless and until such time as the Executor transferred it to them. Since such a transfer never occurred the assignments made by Linda’s widow and daughters in favour of Folkways had no force.
In the year 2004, a settlement was reached between the parties acknowledging “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a derivative of “Mbube”, designating Solomon Linda as its co-composer and creating a trust to administer the Linda’s heirs’ copyright in “Mbube” and to receive on their behalf the payments due out of the use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
The most interesting aspect of this case is the precedent that it sets in enabling heirs who are not benefiting from the copyrighted works of their forbears, to obtain remuneration arising from the exploitation of such works. This reversionary interest applies in all countries of the former British Empire in which the Imperial Copyright Act (1911) was a statute of general application.
This blogger also notes as compelling the application of copyright law in the protection of “Mbube”, a folk song, against the common view that copyright through its protection of the perceived author’s interest often fails to take into account the indigenous origin of the creation.

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