Transfer Pricing Associates

Royalties for the Maasai

post Thursday October 31, 2013

Tags: maasai, royalties, trademark

maasai art

Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania are going to claim the commercial use of their name and image. Lawrence ole Mbelati, a tribesman who works for a Kenyan NGO, informed a group of 70 Maasai leaders in Tanzania about the commercial use of the Maasai name and what they can do against it. The Maasai are well aware of the misuse of their name; they see their images on billboards and their work in giftshops, but they are underrepresented in the industry and do not know what to do against it. The group of Maasai leaders followed a two days presentation on IP. Ole Mbelati: “Whose name is being used?  It’s the Maasai name. Who is becoming strong economically? The people who are using the Maasai name.”  

New Zealander Ron Layton did research on the use of the Maasai name. Layton is specialized in advising organizations in developing countries on IP (copyrights, patents, trademarks). He concluded that approximately 10,000 companies worldwide use the Maasai name.  According to Layton, 6 companies have each made more than $100 million in annual sales during the last decade using the Maasai name:

  1. Jaguar Land Rover
  2. Louis Vuitton
  3. Masai Barefoot Technology (MBT)
  4. Bedding by Calvin Klein 
  5. Ralph Lauren
  6. Diane von Furstenberg

“Most of the value of the Maasai brand is not in the handicrafts the tribe produces,” Layton says. “It’s in the cultural value of an iconic brand.” The Maasai value their culture and hold on to their traditions. Their red attire is very recognizable which makes the tribe important for the African tourism industry; the tribe is as much an attraction as the wild animals. Firms make use of this for their commercial activities using the tribe’s name for their products.  

Layton and tribal elder Isaac ole Tialolo have been working for 4 years on the Maasai case. They have registered the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI), a Tanzanian nonprofit organization that can credibly represent the Maasai. The US Patent and Trademark Office granted $1.25 million. MIPI estimates to have at least 900 signatories by early next year. Then, the group will make an official declaration at Suswa, where the tribe has settled issues of war and peace. Subsequently, the general assembly will elect a board to represent it, and MIPI will begin laying its claim. Layton’s strategy is to search for companies that will publicly recognize MIPI’s assertion of brand ownership. Jaguar Land Rover is said to plan to affirm the claim. Layton estimates that MIPI could see licensing revenues as high as $10 million a year within a decade.

The Maasai’s campaign to share in the profits made by using the tribe’s name and image has precedents. In Australia the aboriginal people have managed to gain control of their cultural symbols. In the US, the Navajo tribe of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico sued the firm Urban Outfitters for using its name in its product lines. Although the tribe holds several trademarks on the Navajo name, Urban Outfitters  argues it has become a generic term. The case is ongoing, after the two sides failed to reach a settlement in August.

However, legally MIPI’s claim is weak. Although the Maasai are the creators of their culture, the tribe never enforced ownership of it. Seth Siegel, co-founder of the Beanstalk Group, a trademark licensing agency and consultant is skeptical: “It’s a nice idea, but if it would work, the French deficit would be gone by asking for royalties on French fries.”

Source: BloombergBusinessweek

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