July 07, 2004

Disney Sued over "Lion Sleeps Tonight"

Lawyers for the family of the song's original composer, Zulu migrant worker Solomon Linda, are suing Walt Disney in South Africa for infringement of copyright to the song, which has earned an estimated $15 million since it was written in 1939.

The song, originally called "Mbube," has been recorded by at least 150 artists around the world and features in Disney's "Lion King" on film and on the stage.

A statement from the U.S. company received by Reuters in Johannesburg Tuesday said Walt Disney had obtained the right to use the song properly from Abilene Music, the New York firm which administers its copyright in the United States.
This is a dispute between the Copyright holder and the artist, and Disney is not really part of it. Copyright Law in South Africa states that the copyright should return to the creator's family 25 years after their death, which would have been 1987. The suit should be against Abilene Music, but Disney has the deep pockets.

But just at the end, see what the judges tack onto the suit:
South Africa's High Court in Pretoria has attached use of Disney's trademarks in South Africa -- including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck -- to the case. That means proceeds from use of those trademarks will revert to the plaintiffs if Walt Disney loses the case.
What? Let me get this straight: If a South African judge concludes that Disney, (who didn't hold the copyright to begin with, they just paid to use it,) is found liable for Abilene Music's actions, Disney loses all proceeds from ALL their trademarks in South Africa to these people?

Don't get me wrong, "Lion Sleeps Tonight" is a great song. I performed it too many times to mention in my singing days, and I think that the copyright should revert to the family. But to sue an unrelated third party for the revenues from ALL their traemarks? That's not only greed, that's a disgrace to the legal system. It's comparable to Davy Jones from The Monkees getting all the proceeds from the "Shrek" franchise because Dreamworks' Copyright partner didn't file the papers correctly to use "I'm a Believer".

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I know I'm on dangerous ground taking a position even tangentially opposed to Disney, but as the laywer of the family, I thought I should explain a bit here. First, attaching the revenues is simply including the resource they can get funds from if Disney doesnt cough up, and a method of establishing jurisdiction. They cannot get more than the amount of the judgment from it.
    Second, the reason they are after Disney instead of the music company is that Disney is the one who benefited from the song. If the rights had reverted to the family, then Disney gained no rights to anything by dealing with Abilene, and thus the owner of the copyright could have alegitimate claim.
    I know you guys love Disney, but the art and creation side of Disney is very different from the business side - I've dealt with them, and they are known throughout the industry for being coldhearted and cutthroat. These are the same people who tried to block distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11 to preserve their theme park tax breaks in Jeb Bush's state.