Until July 2031, three expressions associated with Mr Francis Atwoli, the secretary-general of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu), are out of bounds for Kenyans in various settings.
‘Aalaa’, ‘alaaa’ and ‘alaaaa’ are exclusive to Mr Atwoli (right) because of a trademark he successfully applied for.
No one can use them for entertainment purposes, telecommunications, advertisements, games, or clothing, among other uses, without his permission.
According to Mr Atwoli’s personal assistant Adams Barasa, even deejays can’t use it in mixes.
“They should pay him,” he told the Saturday Nation.
We further asked Mr Barasa if anyone using the “alaa” sound bite should get Mr Atwoli’s nod.
“Yes, they should get permission from him. And, any advert can’t use the word ‘alaa!’ unless they get his permission,” he said, noting that any advertisement that contains “alaa” will be deemed to have breached the trademark.
“I saw a billboard the other day at Village Market that had the word ‘alaa!’ But, thank God, they pulled it down after three days because they were told, ‘Atwoli akiiona, mtalipa millions,’” he said.
The topic of Mr Atwoli’s ownership of the trademark was a subject of discussion on Wednesday at Karatina University during the opening of a week-long sensitisation workshop for universities, technical and vocational education training colleges and research institutions in the central Kenya region on intellectual property.
Speaking at the sidelines of the workshop, Mr Henry Kibe from the patents division of the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (Kipi) said he couldn’t tell if it will be a trademark breach for people to use the remarks in speeches.
“It is true we have patented ‘alaa’ as an intellectual property, but I can’t tell whether it is also illegal for someone to utter it in public,” he said.
The trademark certificate, seen by the Saturday Nation, shows that Mr Atwoli’s application to own the trademark was registered on July 1, 2021. It will expire on July 1, 2031.
Mr Atwoli’s “alaa” remark, made in the same breath as his utterance about knowing who will not be president after the 2022 General Election, became a hit on social media, and a number of edited videos had it as a sound effect used to dramatise various situations. Some quick-thinking Kenyans quickly made T-shirts branded “Alaa! Alaa!”
Mr Atwoli was later asked about his quest to own the trademark and he said it was an initiative by “lawyers in our offices”.
“They thought it was good because it was unique to me,” he told Citizen TV as he said he wasn’t stopping anyone from using it. “I think they were looking for protection for that particular thing as a trademark. There is nothing wrong with that.”
In the Oxford Kamusi ya Kiswahili Sanifu, “ala!” is defined as an expression for showing shock. “Alaa!”, it says, is an expression to show understanding. “Alaaa” and “alaaaa” are not recognised as Swahili expressions.
Commenting on the matter after the Nation first reported Mr Atwoli’s application, intellectual property lawyer Elizabeth Lenjo wondered whether the Cotu boss’s ownership of the trademark made any commercial sense.
“Perhaps a sound trademark (soundmark) should have been considered, just like the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion roar. However, since I last checked and attempted to register a sound trademark at Kipi, Kenya is yet to have the legal and policy ‘infrastructure’ to register sound trademarks and olfactory marks (pertaining to the smell of a product). Perhaps it’s time?” she wrote on her website.
She also explained how Mr Atwoli’s trademark will pan out.
“He has declared the registration in the classes 25, 28, 35, 38, 42 and 45, meaning businesses in the nature of trade highlighted in these classes cannot use the phrase or mark in advertising or to associate their mark with the phrase.
For example, a telecommunications company running an advertisement with the phrase, ‘Alaaaa! Kumbe ni wewe?’ Or something (will be in breach),” noted Ms Lenjo.