British Clothing Brand Receives Backlash for Trademarking “Yoruba”: An Explainer

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On Sunday, Yoruba people across the globe were shocked and incensed to discover that a white-owned British business had trademarked the word “Yoruba.”

In the beginning…
Apparently it was in 2015 that Timbuktu, an outdoor clothing brand, filed to have the word “Yoruba” trademarked. This is as shown by the records of the UK Intellectual Property Office. However, it wasn’t until recently that it came to light for Gbemisola Isimi, and not till Sunday, that it became public knowledge.

Why is this news?
The current conversation and outrage would never have happened if Gbemisola Isimi hadn’t filed to have the phrase “Yoruba Stars” trademarked. Isimi is the founder of CultureTree, an African cultural center based in London. The center was founded for educational purposes, with various programs on African cultures including language classes. Culture Tree had been organizing Yoruba classes under the name “Yoruba Stars” to teach youngsters the language, and the phrase had become popular with students. Isimi said that Timbuktu, within the strictures of UK IP law, had challenged her proposal to trademark “Yoruba Stars”.

In the series of tweets that Isimi made, she noted that she had, in the beginning, noticed that a brand called Timbuktu had trademarked “Yoruba”. Assuming there wouldn’t be any issues, she had gone ahead to file her proposed trademark. Not long after, she claimed to have received an email from the Intellectual Property Office, that Timbuktu had contested her file. Timbuktu further stated that their registration made it impossible for any other brands to register or trademark products that pertained to “Yoruba.”

Following the above, Culture Tree, through its legal team, reached out to Timbuktu. It was then that Timbuktu offered to sell the trademarked word, “Yoruba”, to Culture Tree. After refusing the offer, Isimi took to both Twitter and Instagram to share the story.

Cause of the outrage
The Yoruba nation spreads across several West African countries, including Nigeria and Benin Republic. It is one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa.

In her tweet, Isimi pointed out the absurdity of a brand being able to trademark a word that is “a tribe and language of millions of people.” She also pointed out that the brand offers no products or services that align with anything Yoruba. Describing it as “the height of cultural appropriation”, Isimi also said the brand was “attempting to claim sole ownership of a birth right belonging to people of another continent.”

Isimi’s words adequately mirror the response of most people to the shocking news. Many people shared their disapproval and outrage using the hashtag #Yorubaisnotforsale. Popular writer, Elnathan John, said on Twitter that this isn’t a matter of cultural appropriation, but rather of law.

What’s the outcome of the outcry?
After the social media backlash, Timbuktu reached out once more to Culture Tree via email. This time they offered them the trademark for free. Timbuktu also went ahead to deactivate its Twitter account and turned off comments on its Instagram page.

It has also brought to light the fact that this kind of trademarking isn’t new in the UK, with words like “Swahili” on that list. People are talking more about neo-colonialism and cultural appropriation.