About 80 companies worldwide including Louis Vuitton and Land Rover are currently using either the Maasai's image or name, a brand possibly worth "tens of millions."
Companies hoping to market their products using the colorful Maasai image might soon have to consult with the ethnic group's elders first.
"We all know that we have been exploited by people who just come around, take our pictures and benefit from it," Maasai leader Isaac ole Tialolo told BBC News.
As chair of the newly-created organization Maasai Intelletcual Property Initiative, Tialolo and other Maasai elders are working with the African IP Trust and non-profit organization Light Years IP to determine the best course of action for branding Maasai culture.
Land Rover, Louis Vuitton and Masai Barefoot Technology are some of the 80 companies currently using the Maasai image or name to sell their products. Light Years IP founder and head Ron Layton estimated that if the Maasai "brand" were owned by a corporation, it would be worth more than $10 million a year — possibly as much as "tens of millions."
"I think people need to understand the culture of others and respect it," said Tialolo. "You should not use it to your own benefit, leaving the community — or the owner of the culture — without anything."
Tialolo and Light Years IP have reportedly discussed the issue with about 1.2 million Maasai members thus far throughout Kenya and Tanzania. If a consensus is reached among the elders, then a General Assembly trained in intellectual property would act as a legal body specifically on this issue, negotiating with companies via a licensing agent, on a case-by-case basis, according to BBC News.
Asked whether the Maasai's branding efforts would be successful, experts in IP law and branding advised pursuing trademarks — which several companies have already claimed — or securing a voluntary code to shame Western multinational companies into playing fair. The Aborigines of Australia, Ethiopian coffee farmers and the Native American Navajo have all challenged the use of their name or cultural and intellectual property in recent years.
"The Maasai are an ancient and sophisticated people," said African IP Trust board member Lord Boateng. "They know they are being ripped off and they want this to stop."
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(Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya)