Solomon Linda's song has penetrated every corner of the globe. It's the most famous tune ever to have come out of Africa.
He and his family must be multi-multi-millionaires, right? Not exactly. Linda sold it to the Gallo record company for ten shillings: that would be about 87 cents. In 1962, just as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was reaching Number One around the world, he died of kidney disease in Soweto, on the edge of Johannesburg, in a concrete hovel with a couple of bedrooms with dirt floors covered in cow dung. He left his widow the equivalent of $22 in the bank and unable even to afford a headstone for his grave.
The child of wealthy New York radicals, Seeger has always been avowedly anti-capitalist. Yet his publisher had a deal with Gallo Music: they snaffled up the rights to "Mbube" cheap and in return sub-licensed to Gallo the South African and Rhodesian rights to "Wimoweh". And Seeger knew all along that Solomon Linda was the composer. He says now that back in the Fifties he instructed his publishers to give his royalties from the song to Linda, and he was shocked, shocked to discover decades later that they hadn't in fact been doing so. Evidently, it never occurred to him, as an unworldly anti-capitalist, to check his royalty statements. It was, on his part, supposedly a sin of omission. Whatever one thinks of that, his associates can't plead the same accidental oversight. Having persuaded Linda to sign away his copyright, the relevant parties made sure to slide some forms in front of his illiterate widow in 1982 and his daughters some years later to make sure the appropriation paperwork was kept in order.
...it was, in the end, a legacy of colonialism that ended the injustice. There are significant differences between US and British copyright law, and one of them is that the latter attempts to restrain the damage a foolish creator can do to himself. Under British Commonwealth law, the ownership in any intellectual property reverts to the author's heirs 25 years after his death regardless of what disadvantageous deals he may have signed. In the courtroom, the quiet courtroom, the lawsuit slept for decades, until Solomon Linda's daughters were apprised of this significant feature of Commonwealth copyright law, and took action. The sleeping lion also took on the Mouse - the Walt Disney corporation, whose film The Lion King had introduced the song to a new generation of children. In America, Linda's family really had no legal leg to stand on, but, faced with potentially catastrophic complications in Britain, South Africa, Australia, India and other key markets, Disney were only too keen to settle. In 2006, Solomon Linda finally received his due.
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