South African lawyers are suing U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney Co. for infringement of copyright on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the most popular song to emerge from Africa, the lawyers said today

South African lawyers are suing U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney Co. for infringement of copyright on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the most popular song to emerge from Africa, the lawyers said today (July 2).

If Disney loses, South African proceeds from its trademarks -- including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck -- could be seized by the courts, lawyers representing relatives of the song's composer said.

The lilting song, initially called "Mbube," has earned an estimated $15 million in royalties since it was written by Zulu migrant worker Solomon Linda in 1939. It was featured in Disney's "Lion King" movies.

However, Linda's impoverished family has received only about $15,000, the lawyers said. Disney executives in South Africa were not immediately available for comment.

Linda sold the worldwide copyright for "Mbube" to a local firm, but under British laws in effect at the time, those rights should have reverted to his heirs 25 years after his death in 1962, copyright lawyer Owen Dean says.

This means Linda's surviving three daughters and 10 grandchildren would be entitled to a share of royalties from the song, which has been recorded by at least 150 musicians.

"We are claiming 10 million rand [$1.6 million] in damages from Disney at the moment," Dean says. "The court attached use of Disney trademarks in South Africa to the case last week. We believe our legal position is very sound."

The case could have widespread implications for other South African musicians, authors and artists who may have sold their rights without being aware of their entitlements. "The family are entitled to royalties. There has also been a misappropriation of South African culture -- the song is thought to be American," Dean said.

The Mbube song was adapted by U.S. folk singer Pete Seeger, who called it "Wimoweh," as he misheard its Zulu lyrics. U.S. songwriter George David Weiss rewrote the song as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

--Reuters