Can a Tribe Sue for Copyright? The Maasai Want Royalties for Use of Their Name

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on an effort by the Maasai to grab control of their intellectual property.

Sometimes, to get your point across to the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, you have to talk in cows. Lawrence ole Mbelati, a tribesman, stands in front of a group of about 70 Maasai leaders and elders from a district in northern Tanzania, holding a picture of a red-and-brown fountain pen. Introduced in 2003 by Italian pen maker Delta, it was part of the company’s “Indigenous People” luxury line. Called Maasai, it retailed for upwards of $600. “That’s like three or four good cows,” ole Mbelati, 35, tells the group.

Ole Mbelati, who works for a Kenyan nongovernmental organization, has driven down from Nairobi. He’s speaking in Maa, the Maasai language, but wears jeans and a polo shirt. Most of the elders have come in the clothes they wear every day: bright red shukas, wrapped around them like togas. Some have sneakers on, but many wear homemade sandals crafted from tire treads. The women, as well as some men, wear intricately beaded earrings, necklaces, and armbands. They sit in a concrete building usually used for classes in veterinary medicine. Many have placed black wooden rods, the mark of a chief, on the table. A few hold up mobile phones, recording ole Mbelati as he explains the ways in which others are profiting at the tribe’s expense. “Whose name is being used?” he asks. “It’s the Maasai name. Who is becoming strong economically? The people who are using the Maasai name.”

Read the rest.

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