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Disney Seeks to Untangle Trademarks From Suit

The company asks a South African court to lift an order limiting its control over the assets.

August 25, 2004|From Reuters

Walt Disney Co. wants its Mickey Mouse back.

The Burbank-based entertainment giant asked a South African court on Tuesday to set aside an order that holds about 240 of its most famous trademarks -- including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck -- hostage to the outcome of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over the copyright to the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Lawyers for the family of the song's original composer, South African migrant worker Solomon Linda, have sued Disney in Pretoria for infringement of copyright to the song, one of Africa's most famous melodies.

South Africa's High Court earlier ordered that Disney be denied the right to dispose of South African rights to the world-famous trademarks pending resolution of the case.

The move, while largely symbolic, tied Mickey Mouse's fortunes to that of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" -- now a cause celebre among South African artists who say Disney has grown rich while Linda's heirs remain impoverished.

A Disney spokeswoman in South Africa declined to comment on the case Tuesday. But lawyers for the company told the court that various irregularities in the Lindas' lawsuit meant the court order limiting Disney's control over its trademark assets in the country should be invalidated, court witnesses said.

Attorney Cedric Puckrin, representing the Linda estate, rejected the Disney charges and urged Judge Hekkie Daniels to remember that the case was being heard "in a court of law, not Disney World."

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which has earned an estimated $15 million since it was written under the title "Mbube" in 1939, has been recorded by at least 150 artists around the world and features in Disney's "Lion King" on film and on the stage.

Lawyers 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.

Disney has argued that it obtained the right to use the song properly from Abilene Music, which administers its copyright in the United States.

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