Culture Jacking, Intellectual Property + Protecting Your Brand.


maasai-village-overlay business lawyer


Culturist reader + client @themcbproject sent along a Businessweek article discussing the Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania. Basically, corporate giants have used the tribe’s name and signature cultural attributes, for commercial use. They made serious dough, and kept it moving — business as usual, right? Businessweek reports that, “Six companies have each made more than $100 million in annual sales during the last decade using the Maasai name.”

Are you surprised? I’m not either.

They further state that,

In 2003, Jaguar Land Rover sold limited-edition versions of its Freelander called Maasai and Maasai Mara. Louis Vuitton’s 2012 spring-summer men’s collection included scarves and shirts inspired by the Maasai shuka. The shoe company Masai Barefoot Technology (MBT) says on its website that the distinctive curved soles of its sneakers were inspired by “the wonderfully agile Masai [sic] people walking barefoot.” Bedding by Calvin Klein, shirts and trousers by Ralph Lauren, and cushions by Diane von Furstenberg have all been sold using the tribe’s name.

Check out the LV Summer Collection 2012 here. You will see the Maasai “inspired” designs beginning at the 50 second mark:

Approximately 10,000 companies, globally, use the Maasai name and style, selling everything from auto parts to hats to legal services.

The Maasai are pursuing this case. Ron Layton, advocate and  international IP expert says the tribe could receive as much as $10 million a year in royalties revenues if their case is handled well. However, Seth Siegal, cofounder of a trademark licensing agency stated, “Legally, the claim is weak. The Maasai may be responsible for the creation of their culture, but they’ve never made an effort to enforce ownership of it, so they face an uphill battle doing so now.”

Check out the full story here.

Are there intellectual property protections for cultural property? We shall see.

A similar situation involves Urban Outfitters, who sold Navajo jewelry and clothing. The Navajo tribe filed a lawsuit for trademark infringement, trademark dilution, unfair competition, false advertising, violation of commercial practices law, and violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

Here, the Navajo owned federal trademark registrations for their tribe name — Maasai does not. However, Urban Outfitters counter claimed, seeking a cancellation of the tribe’s trademark, claiming that Navajo is a generic term and not registerable as a federal trademark.

This ish is still pending as well. Check out the scoop here.

What is the one big lesson that I want you to take from this post?

Okay, I lied. There are two.

First, register your ish. If you are using your brands for a commercial purpose (in other words, you are SELLING) then register it as a trademark – personal brands included.

Second, monitor your brand. Know when it’s being mentioned online, and in what context. Even if the Maasai and Navajo are unsuccessful in their legal battles, the companies might settle for goodwill reasons – to remain in a positive light with the public.

If you are going to stake your claim to a brand then pay attention to it.

What are your thoughts? 

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