Audio Transcription of Interview on Classic FM on 29 May 2006; The Lion Sleeps Tonight

TONY BLEWITT:

We’re talking about intellectual property here on Classic FM with Spoor & Fisher and a partner at the company, Dr Owen Dean in the studio again. Owen, good morning.

OWEN DEAN:

Good morning to you.

TONY BLEWITT:

We spoke about the Da Vinci Code last week - The Lion Sleeps Tonight - I believe that you actually handled this case with regard to Disney and that song.

OWEN DEAN:

Yes I did, it was my case from start to finish.

TONY BLEWITT:

There has been lots of media coverage of that case brought by the Solomon Linda Estate regarding that. Tell us about that, would you, the background to it.

OWEN DEAN:

Well, what happened was that Solomon Linda was a herdsman from Kwa-Zulu. He composed a song which he called Mbube, which means lion in Zulu. He came to Johannesburg, he recorded the song with Gallo. He had a group of performers he worked with called Evening Birds and they use to go around to the shebeens and perform and this was one of their favourite songs. The song was reasonably successful in South Africa. Some years later in the early 50s Gallo, who had a relationship with Deco Records, decided to send a whole lot of their sort of master recordings over to the States to see whether there was a market for them. The Deco people listened to what was sent to them and they did not have any interest, but they handed the whole lot on to a then very famous, popular folk singer in the United States called Pete Seeger. And Pete Seeger listened to this material, found Mbube and thought that he could make something of it, and he didn’t have any sheet music so he transcribed the song from the record. He heard the word that was said on the song, which was Mbube, and he heard that as Wimoweh and he then sang a song, produced a record called Wimoweh which became pretty famous in about the mid 50s and early 60s. Thereafter a group called The Tokens, a pop group in the US, got a songwriter to do a variation of Wimoweh and they came out with The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The Lion Sleeps Tonight became extremely popular, it was one of the most successful pop songs ever written. Eventually in the 90s it found its way into the movie and the Disney stage show, The Lion King. And there of course it became even more famous. Now this is a great success story as far as the song Mbube is concerned. The trouble was that the composer Solomon Linda signed away his rights way back in 1950-odd and got the princely sum of 10 shillings for his work, and he died in poverty and his family have been living in poverty ever since. A journalist by the name of Rian Malan did an expose of this whole thing, wrote an article which appeared in a magazine called Rolling Stone. Very popular in the music industry. And this caused waves in South Africa and it was decided that something should be done about it. I was consulted and we looked into the law and found that there was a somewhat obscure piece of British legislation which had operated in South Africa at the time that the song was written. And in terms of this legislation, 50 years after the death of a composer, where he had assigned away his rights, sorry 25 years after his death, the last 25 years of the copyright – there is a 50 year term after death – the copyright reverted back to his estate. We realised that these facts applied to this particular case so we reopened his estate, got an Executor appointed and we then sued Walt Disney through the estate for unauthorised use of a derivation of Mbube, namely The Lion Sleeps Tonight, in the movie and stage show The Lion King. And it all turned out very successfully, we got a very good settlement in terms of which back royalties were paid and an ongoing royalty will be paid to the family for all future use of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

TONY BLEWITT:

Fantastic. But what other important results arise out of that case?

OWEN DEAN:

Well the case in a way has set the precedent that where rights were assigned away during the lifetime of a composer, or any creative person, that would apply to books and whatever, paintings, where those rights were signed away, there is a second opportunity namely 25 years after the composer or author’s death the family can ……

TONY BLEWITT:

And that applies to, as you say, any creative work?

OWEN DEAN:

Any creative work. Now of course with South Africa’s history and going back to the 1930s, 40s, 50s, the apartheid system was in place and black creative people had a very weak bargaining position. So I am sure that there have been many instances where people have signed away their birth-rights literally, for very little compensation, and now there is an opportunity for the families to come back and perhaps undo some of the injustice which was done in the past.

TONY BLEWITT:

Fantastic. Great story. Thank you for being here again from Spoor & Fisher, it’s been brilliant.

OWEN DEAN:

You are most welcome.

Dr. Owen Dean

SPOOR & FISHER

Date published: 2006/05/25
Author: Dr Owen Dean

Tags: audio transcription classic fm the lion sleeps tonight