Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Others "Kidnapped & Held Hostage" in Extraordinary Legal Proceeding

Leading copyright lawyer at Spoor & Fisher, Dr Owen Dean, has been awarded a court order authorizing him to attach legendary Disney trade marks pending resolution of a copyright dispute. The Disney icons - including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Winnie the Pooh and many others - will be detained until issues surrounding the earnings of an equally legendary pop song are settled.

Dean´s client in this landmark case is the estate of Solomon Linda, composer of a Zulu tune that forms the basis of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," one of the 20th Century´s most lucrative and enduring pop songs. Although Linda´s contribution to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is openly acknowledged, the ill-fated migrant worker never received credit as a co-composer and died a pauper in 1962. Starting in the early seventies, his destitute family received a trickle of royalties from the American owners of the "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" copyright, but Dean´s legal team claims these amounted to a pittance - "way under one percent of the song´s earnings" in the 1992-2002 period, according to attorney Hanro Friedrich.

In 2001, Friedrich arranged for a colleague in Los Angeles to open negotiations on the family´s behalf with Abilene Music, the New York-based company that administers "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" copyright. Abilene´s response gave no comfort to the family. A subsequent attempt at "quiet diplomacy" by South African music industry figures came to nothing.

A year later, the case made its way into the hands of Dr Owen Dean, widely regarded as South Africa´s foremost copyright lawyer and author of a doctoral thesis on the historical aspects of South African copyright law, including the Imperial Copyright Act of 1911, which was in force throughout the British empire in the year when Linda recorded "Mbube", the song in which "The Lion Sleeps Tonight´s" central melody first appears. Dean immediately realised the implications: in terms of the Imperial Copyright Act, ownership of "Mbube" reverted to Linda´s heirs 25 years after his death, thereby revoking all existing deals and requiring anyone using Linda´s music in Commonwealth territories to negotiate new agreements with his estate. This insight forms the basis for the audacious legal strategy set in motion this week, when a judge authorised Dean to attach Disney´s trade marks in South Africa.

"I have no axe to grind with Disney itself," Dean explained. "In fact, I assume they don´t know much about Solomon Linda and the way he and his family have been treated. But they are using his music in "The Lion King" musical, which 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, so we´re detaining Mickey, Donald and all the others until proper justice is done by the Americans."

As far as Dean is concerned, the provisions of the Imperial Copyright Act apply in all territories that were once part of the British empire. He is therefore eyeing a similar action in the UK itself, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada likely to follow. Also in the crosshairs are all record companies and artists who have recorded or plan to record new versions of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" without negotiating appropriate permissions with Linda´s estate. "We simply want a fair deal for the family," said Dean. "If this can be achieved by negotiation, so much the better."

More information about this issue can be found in the following articles on our website:

  • The Lion song fact sheet
  • Copyright infringement claim in respect of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
  • Photograph of Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds •The Lion Sleeps Tonight - Update
  • TRO/Folkways offer to pay all future Wimoweh royalties to the family of Solomon Linda

Dr Owen Dean

Spoor & Fisher

Date published: 2004/07/21
Author: Dr Owen Dean

Tags: mickey mouse legal proceeding solomon linda the lion sleeps tonight