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Sun, Jul 04, 2004 - Page 12 News List

In the jungle, the lion wakes to alleged IPR infringement

Lawyers on Friday announced the first in a host of suits by the estate of Solomon Linda, who penned the song that was the basis for the hit `The Lion Sleeps Tonight'


The lion snoozed in the jungle, but it was in Johannesburg that his alleged owner woke up on Friday to claim some reward from one of pop music's most successful songs.

Lawyers for the family of Solomon Linda, a migrant Zulu worker whose 1939 composition formed the basis for Wimoweh and The Lion Sleeps Tonight, announced the first of what are promised to be many lawsuits against the entertainment industry.

Under an arcane piece of colonial-era copyright law, the lawyers will next week sue Disney for £900,000 for using the song without permission in the film and stage show The Lion King.

Linda died penniless and was buried without a headstone in 1962 but his descendants, not much better off, hope to earn millions in damages and royalties for a tune so catchy that even those who loathe it hum along.

"We intend going after anyone who is using the song. We started with Disney because they are the most active of the users," said Owen Dean, the South African lawyer leading the action, after a press conference in Johannesburg.

"The Lion King musical ... is running to full houses all over the world while Linda's daughters work as domestic servants, live in shacks and struggle to feed their families. As far as we're concerned, this is both illegal and profoundly unfair."

No one disputes that the Zulu who grew up protecting cattle from lions first came up with the 15-note melody in a Johannesburg recording studio to which he sold the copyright.

He called the song Mbube, Zulu for "lion," and it sold 100,000 records in southern Africa.

It found its way to the American folk singer Pete Seeger, who in his autobiography recalled transcribing the song "note for note." His band, the Weavers, corrupted Mbube into Wimoweh, and got a number 6 hit in 1951 to 1952.

A decade later another band, The Tokens, rerecorded it with fresh, English lyrics and under the title The Lion Sleeps Tonight it topped the charts worldwide.

Since then at least 170 artists have recorded versions of the tune, which according to Rolling Stone magazine has received the equivalent of three centuries of airplay on US radio stations.

Its commercial triumph was sealed when it became the only non-Elton John song to be used in Disney's 1994 animated film The Lion King and subsequent spin-offs and stage show. They have reportedly generated US$1 billion revenues.

Though irregular royalty payments amounting to several thousand pounds did find their way to Linda's family, they remain poor.

However, Dean, an expert on copyright, found a provision in a 1911 British imperial copyright law which stated that all rights to a song reverted to the composer's estate 25 years after his death.

It does not apply in the US, so the lawyers are suing Disney through a high court in Pretoria by "attaching" trademarks the company has registered in South Africa, including cartoon characters.

If they win damages and Disney refuses to pay, Linda's family has the right to sell those trademarks in South Africa, Dean said.

"We're detaining Mickey, Donald and all the others until proper justice is done by the Americans."

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