U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney Co said Tuesday it was not liable in a dispute with South African lawyers over the copyright to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – one of Africa’s most famous tunes.
Lawyers for the family of the song’s original composer, Zulu migrant worker Solomon Linda, are suing Walt Disney in South Africa for infringement of copyright to the song, which has earned an estimated $15 million since it was written in 1939.
The song, originally called “Mbube,” has been recorded by at least 150 artists around the world and features in Disney’s “Lion King” on film and on the stage.
A statement from the U.S. company received by Reuters in Johannesburg Tuesday said Walt Disney had obtained the right to use the song properly from Abilene Music, the New York firm which administers its copyright in the United States.
“As a company built on the strength of its creative content, the Walt Disney Company takes all matters of copyright ownership seriously,” it said.
“To the extent that a copyright ownership issue exists in this case, it should be taken up with Abilene Music publishers, from which the rights to ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ were properly licensed.”
South African lawyer Owen Dean told Reuters that although the response from Walt Disney was factually correct, the U.S. firm was still liable for copyright infringement under British laws in force in the country when the song was recorded in 1939.
Lawyers acting for Linda’s family – who live in poverty in the Johannesburg township of Soweto – say that under laws in force in South Africa at the time, rights to the song should have reverted to Linda’s heirs 25 years after his death in 1962.
Dean said the family was claiming ten million rand ($1.6 million) in damages from Disney.
They say they are suing Walt Disney rather than Abilene Music as Abilene has no assets in the country.
South Africa’s High Court in Pretoria has attached use of Disney’s trademarks in South Africa – including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck – to the case.
That means proceeds from use of those trademarks will revert to the plaintiffs if Walt Disney loses the case.