A district in northern Tanzania is home to the Maasai tribe, one of the the most widely copied tribes to date. Turns out, the tribe has somewhat recently become aware that brands are "profiting at the tribe’s expense," namely, by using the Maasai name without the authorization to do so. As a result, Maasai leaders came together for a two-day presentation on intellectual property in a couple of years ago and have embarked on a fight to claim their IP rights.
While over 10,000 companies have reportedly used the Maasai name on products in the past, Ron Layton, a New Zealander who specializes in advising developing world organizations on copyrights, patents, and trademarks, says, "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.
Layton continues on to note, "Louis Vuitton’s 2012 Spring/Summer men’s collection [pictured above] included scarves and shirts inspired by the Maasai shuka. The shoe company Masai Barefoot Technology, 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."
As for whether the Maasai have a cause of action against such entities, Layton is working on it. He has spent the last four years on the Maasai case, helped by a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Much of the effort so far has reportedly centered on creating an organization that could credibly represent the Maasai.
Layton estimates that if the Maasai play their cards correctly they could see licensing revenues as high as $10 million a year within a decade. The first step, he says, will be to seek out friendly companies who will publicly recognize [the Maasai's] assertion of brand ownership. Layton says that Jaguar Land Rover has told him it plans to affirm the claim. In a statement, Jaguar Land Rover confirmed it “has been engaged in constructive dialogue with representatives of the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative with respect to the Maasai and Maasai Mara trademarks, which Jaguar Land Rover were the registered proprietor of.
Masai Barefoot Technology, which has recently come under new management, says it’s moving “away from using the 'Masai' word in its terminology which was the previous strategy of the past owners.” Calvin Klein says it no longer uses the tribe’s name and has no plans to do so. Diane von Furstenberg did not reply to requests for comment; spokespeople for Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton declined to comment.
As for whether the Maasai have actual claims right now, the answer is likely: no. Minus a federally registered trademark that covers their name in various classes (like the Navajo Nation has and famously asserted against Urban Outfitters), a federal law that protects the use of their name on non-Maasai goods/services (like the Indian Arts and Craft Act), or a registered copyright over their original pattern (assuming it is original), the tribe does not necessarily have grounds to sue. And it seems Layton knows this, as he is focused on working to license the tribe's name and print in the future.
* This article was initially published in July 2015.