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Online petition saying Disney has exploited Africa gains steam, topping 138,000 signatures

Key Points
  • An online petition to The Walt Disney Company has gained more than 138,000 signatures in support of a call for the company to end its trademark of the term “Hakuna Matata.”
  • The Swahili phrase is commonplace in several African nations, and many of the petition’s supporters have accused Disney of exploiting African culture.
  • The Disney trademark only applies to T-shirts that also feature "Lion King."
A still from Disney's 'The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar'
Disney Junior | Disney ABC Television Group | Getty Images

Disney is facing backlash over its trademark on the Swahili phrase "Hakuna Matata." More than 138,000 people have signed an online petition asking the entertainment company to drop the trademark.

The term, which loosely translates to "no problem," appeared in Disney's 1994 film "The Lion King." According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the corporation filed to trademark the term that year. Disney is set to release a live-action remake of the animated movie in July.

Zimbabwean activist Shelton Mpala started the petition, which had more than 138,000 signatures on Friday, to make a stand against corporations that attempt to trademark languages and phrases.

"The decision to trademark 'Hakuna Matata' is predicated purely on greed and is an insult not only the spirit of the Swahili people but also, Africa as a whole," he said on the petition's website.

The phrase is commonly used in several African countries, including Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

A Disney spokesperson said in a statement to CNBC that the trademark only applies to T-shirts, and the trademark will not prevent others from using the phrase. The trademark is also only applicable under the context of Disney's "Lion King" franchise. For example, anyone would be free to make a T-shirt that says 'Hakuna Matata' as long as it does not include anything from "Lion King" as well.

"Disney's registration for 'Hakuna Matata' T-shirts, which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase," the Disney spokesperson said. "Indeed, for many years, trademarks have been registered for popular words and phrases such as 'Yahoo!', 'Vaya con Dios (Go with God),' 'Merry Christmas' and 'Seasons Greetings' without impeding the use of these phrases and words in any cultural way. In 2018 alone, 638,000 trademark applications were filed."

Mpala told the BBC that while he was not a Swahili speaker, he believed the trademarking was another example of Africa being "exploited in some shape, fashion or form."

Many of the petition's signatories have taken to Twitter to express their outrage at Disney's commercial ownership of the phrase.