The Maasai tribe in Tanzania has a unique identity, name and culture that various companies use to sell products. For example, Diane von Furstenberg sold pillows and necklaces using the Maasai name and Jaguar Land Rover sold a limited-edition vehicle named after the tribe. Presently, the Maasai tribe is seeking control over commercial uses of its name. Seems fair for the Maasai tribe to share in the profits earned by folks using their name, especially, since the Massai name is used to invoke the integrity, sensibility and style of the tribe members.
Personally, I find the arguments against granting the Maasai tribe ownership rights, trademark rights, and licensing rights to their name offensive.
CLAIM 1 AGAINST THE MAASAI OWNING THEIR NAME: because the tribe has never made an effort to enforce ownership of its culture and name until now, the rights have been lost.
COUNTER THIS CLAIM: To me, this is a rather colonial, imperialistic view of rights and ownership; however, tribes and indigenous people all over the world continually fight against this claim. In an effort to set a global standard for respecting indigenous peoples’ rights in their names, culture, trademarks, traditional knowledge and other intellectual property, the UN has adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It may take a high profile challenge by the Maasai to raise international awareness regarding the rights of tribes and indigenous people to their name, trademarks, customs, traditional knowledge and other intellectual property.
CLAIM 2 AGAINST THE MAASAI OWNING THEIR NAME: “It’s a nice idea, but if it would work, the French deficit would be gone by asking for royalties on French Fries.”
COUNTER TO THIS CLAIM: A more accurate comparison than the french fry comment (which I don’t believe the French have ever claimed and may not even want) is the French zeal and persistence in successfully laying claims to and defending the right to use the word CHAMPAGNE as a regional indicator of bubbly wine from the Champagne region of France.
Evidently, the Maasai have launched a campaign to reclaim their name, traditional knowledge and other intellectual property so that they can share in the profits made off their name and likeness. (They also have an attorney and a USPTO grant for support).
BY: Vanessa Kaster, Esq., LL.M.
For more information see, The United Nations Declaration On The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples at http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf; WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore at http://www.wipo.int/edocs/mdocs/tk/en/wipo_grtkf_ic_26/wipo_grtkf_ic_26_inf_8.pdf; article by Stephan Faris in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine titled, For Years, Companies Have Been Making Millions Off The Maasai Name, Now The Tribe Wants Its Cut; @iplegalfreebies and www.kasterlegal.com.