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July 6, 2004

Reuters

South African lawyers are suing U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney Co for infringement of copyright on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the most popular song to emerge from Africa, the lawyers said on Friday. If Disney loses, South African proceeds from its trademarks -- including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck -- could be seized by the courts, lawyers representing relatives of the song's composer said.

The lilting song, initially called "Mbube," earned an estimated $15 million in royalties since it was written by Zulu migrant worker Solomon Linda in 1939, and featured in Walt Disney's "Lion King" movies. However, Linda's impoverished family have only received about $15,000, the lawyers said. Disney executives in South Africa were not immediately available for comment.

Linda sold the worldwide copyright for "Mbube" to a local firm, but under British laws in effect at the time, those rights should have reverted to his heirs 25 years after his death in 1962, copyright lawyer Owen Dean said. This means Linda's surviving three daughters and 10 grandchildren were entitled to a share of royalties from the song, which has since been recorded by at least 150 musicians. "We are claiming ten million rand ($1.6 million) in damages from Disney at the moment," Dean told reporters. "The court attached use of Disney trademarks in South Africa to the case last week. We believe our legal position is very sound." The court will issue a summons to Walt Disney in Los Angeles early next week.

If the case is successful, legal action may also be launched against Disney and other companies in the United Kingdom or Australia, where British copyright laws would have applied, Dean added. It would also have widespread implications for other South African musicians, authors and artists who may have sold their rights without being aware of their entitlements. "The family are entitled to royalties. There has also been a misappropriation of South African culture -- the song is thought to be American," Dean said.

Linda's grandson Zathele Madonsela, 16, told reporters the case was very important for his family, who live in poverty in the Johannesburg township of Soweto."Life is difficult, we are really struggling," he said. Executors of the family's estate are also seeking a further 6 million rand damages from three local companies who have benefited from income either from the "Lion King" films or the song. The Mbube song was adapted by U.S. folk singer Pete Seeger, who called it "Wimoweh" as he misheard its Zulu lyrics. U.S. songwriter George David Weiss rewrote the song as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Posted by acapnews at July 6, 2004 10:29 PM

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