Why social enterprise needs its own approach to intellectual property rights

Solomon Linda (left) with the Original Evening Birds, 1941Solomon Linda (left) with the Original Evening Birds, 1941


The young man on the left of this picture is Soloman Linda.   You may have heard of him sometime over the last few years, though in his own lifetime, in his own century, you certainly wouldn't have.

Sometime in the late 1920s Soloman Linda wrote a song called 'Mbube' (um-boo-bay – Zulu for 'The Lion').  Although a talented musician, Soloman Linda couldn't read or write.   He and his wife lived on maize porridge and slept on a dirt floor,   They had 8 children, 2 of whom died as babies, one from malnutrition.

In the 1930s Linda got a job as a cleaner for the Gallo Record Company, where in 1939 he first recorded the song Mbube – and where in 1952 he signed over the copyright for 10 shillings – that would be about £1 now. When Soloman Linda died in 1962, at 53, his family couldn't afford a gravestone.

As for the song, at least 150 artists eventually recorded it, and it was translated into dozens of languages.  In one translation into English, the original Zulu address to the lion – pronounced 'oo-yim-boo-bay' – was rendered as 'wim-a-way', and the title as 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'.

The song was used in more than a dozen films, as a result of one of which, in 2004 a South African lawyer brought a lawsuit against the Disney Corporation on behalf of Linda's family. It was eventually shown that Soloman Linda had been tricked into selling the rights, and that Disney alone owed $1.6 million in royalties for the use of the song in 'The Lion King'. Demonstrators against GlaxoSmithKline's policies on generic AIDS drugs in Africa shut down the pharmaceutical giant's exhibit atDemonstrators against GlaxoSmithKline's policies on generic AIDS drugs in Africa shut down the pharmaceutical giant's exhibit at the 15th International AIDS Conference, Bangkok, 2004     Photo by Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance / Paul Jeffrey

Now stop, step back, and pick up another thread of this story.

The drug AZT was developed by a US government funded research programme in 1964.  It was bought by UK company Glaxo for use on pet cats.  When the AIDS epidemic broke out, it was again the US government that funded work on the possible use of AZT against HIV – which Glaxo refused to do.  Only when it's effectiveness against HIV was proven did Glaxo assert its patent, and licence the drug for use against HIV – and reap huge profits.

Last year, incidentally, the US pharmaceutical industry spent about $30billion on research into new drugs...   ...and $60billion on advertising.

Glaxo was one of 39 multinational drug companies forced to back down by a public outcry in 2001, after they had tried to force South Africa to stop buying cheap generic anti-aids medicines and instead buy much more expensive patent medicines. Adelaide Ntsele, née Linda, leftAdelaide Ntsele, née Linda, left

Unfortunately, both this victory over the multinational drug companies, and the money from Disney and the other media giants who had made £millions from Soloman Linda's song, came too late for Mr. Linda's daughter Adelaide, who died of AIDS in 2001 at the age 38, unable to afford life-saving medicine.

Why does social enterprise need it's own original approach to intellectual property rights?

I've tried answering this question analytically a number of times, but perhaps stories such as that of Soloman Linda and his daughter Adelaide show more clearly just what's wrong with the globalised big business approach to intellectual property, and why social enterprise really needs an entirely different approach.


More on the doubtful utility

More on the doubtful utility of big business approaches to intellectual property here.