The Maasai people are known warriors, but now they’re about to become known for their business acumen. The Kenyan and Tanzania Maasai people want royalties from businesses that use their name without permission. That goes for Italian pen maker Delta, who introduced the Maasai pen in 2003 and retails for as much as $600, as well as Land Rover.
In a recent report with Bloomberg News, New Zealander, Ron Layton has teamed up with Maasai elders in an effort to educate the Maasai people on copyright, patents and trademarks. Layton, who specializes in advising organizations on copyright issues, estimates six companies have each made more than $100 million in annual sales during the last decade using the Maasai name.
From Bloomberg News:
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.”
Along with Layton, Tribal elder Isaac ole Tialolo is upset with the misuse of the Maasai image. In a recount of a visit to a Chinese restaurant ole Tialolo and seeing images of Maasai warriors he state: “I was really angry,” he says. “I did not even eat.” When a friend told him of Layton’s interest, he was quick to get in touch. “We knew there were a lot of misuses of our culture,” ole Tialolo says. “We didn’t know what to do about it.”
For the last four years, with help from a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Layton and ole Tialolo have been diligently working on their case.
They’ve registered a Tanzanian nonprofit called the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI), endowing it with bylaws they hope will reflect traditional Maasai culture and satisfy the requirements of Western courts. Ole Tialolo estimates there are 1,200 Maasai elders and leaders. He’s working to persuade the traditional chiefs, elected officials, and heads of civic society groups to join MIPI’s general assembly.
With estimates of as licensing revenues as high as $10 million a year within a decade, the Maasai people will definitely benefit financially, which will allow them to develop their areas. “We’re not going so far as to ask for electricity,” says Saitoti Oloishiro, 42, a chief from northern Tanzania and one of the Maasai behind the project. “That would be a daydream. What we are saying is, we need maybe some water for our families and our animals, a dispensary. We need schools nearby.”