Frank Fiore – Novelist & Screenwriter

November 6, 2014

Ain’t Nothing Sacred?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Frank Fiore @ 10:10 AM

In 2003 by Italian pen maker Delta, introduced a red-and-brown fountain called Maasai. It was part of their new “Indigenous People” luxury line. It retailed for upwards of $600. “That’s like three or four good cows,” a tribesman, ole Mbelati, 35, says.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The Delta Maasai pen is just one of the products on display in ole Mbelati’s outreach session, an effort to organize one of Africa’s most famous tribes to lay claim to the commercial use of their name and image. Maasai leaders have come by public transportation, in Land Rovers, on motorcycles, and on foot to a small compound of roughly painted buildings to listen to a two-day presentation on intellectual property. According to Ron Layton, a New Zealander who specializes in advising developing world organizations on copyrights, patents, and trademarks, about 10,000 companies around the world use the Maasai name, selling everything from auto parts to hats to legal services.

Layton estimates six companies have each made more than $100 million in annual sales during the last decade using the Maasai name. In 2003, Jaguar Land Rover sold limited-edition versions of its Freelander called Maasai and Maasai Mara. Louis Vuitton’s (MC:FP) 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 (PVH), shirts and trousers by Ralph Lauren (RL), and cushions by Diane von Furstenberg have all been sold using the tribe’s name. “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’s campaign to share in the profits made off its name and likeness has precedents. In Australia the aboriginal people have managed—mostly through a public-relations campaign—to gain control of their cultural symbols. Although the effort has focused primarily on ensuring that aboriginal iconography and stories are treated with respect, some communities have seen money from visiting television productions or art galleries.

So it begs the question. Can the Maasai copyright their name and profit from their exploitation?

 

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