African Family Sues Disney Over 'Lion King' Tune

An impoverished South African family has filed a lawsuit against U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney (search), seeking royalties for its use of a song by a popular Zulu composer in "The Lion King."

The estate of Solomon Linda, a Zulu migrant worker turned songwriter who in 1939 wrote the tune that became the world hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," filed a lawsuit last week in the Pretoria High Court. The lawsuit seeks $1.6 million in compensation from Disney, lawyer Hanro Friedrich said Wednesday.

Disney denied liability in a statement released Tuesday.

Linda died penniless in 1962, having sold the rights to the song to a South African publisher. Originally titled "Mbube," the song generated some $15 million in royalties after it was adapted by other artists, including American songwriter George Weiss (search), whose version is featured in Disney's 1994 film "The Lion King."

Linda's three surviving daughters and 10 grandchildren, living in poverty in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, have received only a one-time payment of $15,000 from the present copyright holder, Friedrich said. The daughters decided to seek legal help after realizing they had lost out on millions of dollars in royalties.

Their lawyers are bringing a challenge on the basis of law in force in Commonwealth nations at the time the song was first recorded. Under its provisions, the rights to a song revert to the composer's heirs 25 years after his death.