The Maasai hire lawyers to protect their “brand”
The first time Isaac ole Tialolo, a member of Kenya’s Maasai tribe, thought about protecting his intellectual property, it was pure instinct. A tourist on his way to the Masai Mara game reserve started snapping photographs. “I thought, ‘this is an offence’,” he recalls. “He did not ask permission, so I broke his camera. I think it was an expensive one,” said Isaac to the Financial Times. These days, Mr Tialolo, 52, is taking a more legalistic approach to protecting — and monetising — his cultural heritage and that of the nearly 2m Maasai who herd their cattle in a swath of land straddling the Kenya-Tanzania border. As chairman of the Kenyan branch of the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative Trust, which represents Maasai in both countries, he is educating his community about the value of their brand and has hired lawyers to persuade multinational companies to recognise the Maasai trademark — and pay for it.
The Maasai, known for their red-checked togas, fine beadwork and proud warrior history, are an attractive icon for firms wishing to establish particular brand values. Light Years IP, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that more than 1,000 companies, including Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Jaguar Land Rover and Masai Barefoot Technology, a shoe company, have used Maasai imagery or iconography to project their brand.
To press their case, the Maasai are now working with Position Business, a spin-off from Light Years IP, whose founder, Ron Layton, helped Ethiopian coffee growers build trademark protection around their premium coffee. That involved a battle with Starbucks, the US coffee chain, which sought to block the registration of Ethiopian coffee trademarks on the grounds that they had become generic. Mr Layton estimates that Ethiopian farmers, who used to earn “a fraction of the retail value of their premium product”, have gained at least $100m because of the trademark protection.
He told the Financial Times that royalties that could be claimed by the Maasai are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He adds that they could eventually use their brand to strike deals across a range of products from fashion to vehicles, in which a typical licensing fee would be 5 per cent of the retail value. “If someone were using Taylor Swift’s image, she would ask for at least 5 per cent and she would get it,” Mr Layton says, referring to the American singer-songwriter. “A human being can stop others from using their image. With the Maasai this is an asset that belongs to 2m people,” he argues. The Maasai recently struck their first deal with Koy Clothing, a UK retail company, which has agreed to pay a licence fee for clothes based on Maasai designs. Jimmy Scott, marketing director at Koy, says: “We are an early adopter of the licensing arrangement, and in time we hope that more and more companies will follow suit.”