Australian Government Buys Copyright to Indigenous Flag

MELBOURNE, Australia – When Laura Thompson, an Aboriginal businesswoman, received a cease and desist letter in 2019 telling her to stop selling clothing that used the Aboriginal flag design because it violated the law copyright, she was shocked.

“I never thought for a moment that I could face legal action for using the Aboriginal flag which I believe belonged to all Aboriginal peoples,” said Ms Thompson, of the Gunditjmara Tribe and Chief Executive. of Clothing the Gaps, a fashion social enterprise in Melbourne.

Now, two and a half years later, the Australian government has bought the copyright to the flag for A$20 million ($14 million), a move that allows anyone to reproduce the emblem on clothing , merchandise and artwork without asking permission or paying a fee.

“We have released the Aboriginal flag for Australians,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement announcing the acquisition on Monday evening.

Some have questioned the timing of the announcement, just two days before Australia Day, a divisive public holiday that some see as a reminder of the continent’s brutal colonization and lingering issues such as over-surveillance and discrimination against indigenous peoples.

Others have raised concerns about the government’s takeover of the flag’s copyright.

“This is a victory for grassroots people who fought for our right to use our flag,” said Lidia Thorpe, who is Indigenous and a Greens senator. noted in a post on Twitter. “But I’m afraid it doesn’t come under the control of the community. The aboriginal flag belongs to the aboriginal peoples.

Under the heading “Don’t say the Aboriginal flag has been ‘liberated’ – it belongs to us, not the Commonwealth,” Bronwyn Carlson, professor of Aboriginal studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, wrote in an article posted online. Tuesday :

“Our flag contains our sorrows and our unity as a colonized people. It is not a “free for all” symbol. Nor is it a symbol that can be carefully injected into the national psyche as a way of expressing some sort of racial unity that overshadows the injustice and inequality that Indigenous people experience on a daily basis.

The red, yellow and black Aboriginal flag was created by Harold Thomas, an Aboriginal artist, in 1971 to lead a march for Aboriginal rights. It quickly became a unifying symbol for Australia’s more than 500 indigenous tribes. While the national flag was a symbol of colonialism and dispossession in the eyes of many Indigenous peoples, the Indigenous flag represented their strength and struggle.

It was recognized as one of the country’s official flags in 1995 and is often flown on government buildings and public monuments alongside the national flag. It has been used by Aboriginals and businesses for decades.

Unlike the Australian flag, the copyright of which belongs to the federal government, the design and copyright of the Aboriginal flag belonged to Mr Thomas.

In 2018, Mr. Thomas signed an agreement with WAM Clothing, giving the company exclusive worldwide rights to reproduce the flag on a variety of clothing and merchandise. The duration of the agreement for the rights remains uncertain. But the company began aggressively enforcing its demand by sending infringement notices to sports leagues, Indigenous businesses and nonprofits, including Ms. Thompson’s business.

A parliamentary inquiry into the flag’s copyright later concluded that the company’s actions had been “heavy” but were “entirely legal”. The company did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Ms Thompson said she was particularly outraged that the owners of the business were not indigenous and that one owner had already been fined by a court for selling artwork that claimed to have been painted in handmade by aborigines in Australia, but which were actually made in Indonesia.

“No one, let alone a non-Indigenous company, should have exclusive worldwide rights to the flag,” she said. So she launched a “Free the Flag” campaign.

When the copyright dispute began, Ms. Thompson said, many organizations that received infringement notices opted to stop using the flag rather than pay royalties to WAM Clothing. This included the Australian Football League and Rugby Australia, which stopped displaying the flag on players’ shirts.

“It was almost like this copyright put an invisibility cloak over the flag and, in turn, we lost the visibility of the community,” Ms. Thompson said. “We have lost some of that love and pride associated with the flag,” she added. “And now that we know we can all use it, that love is back.”

With Mr Thomas selling the copyright to the Australian government, the flag will now be managed in the same way as the Australian flag, “where its use is free, but must be presented in a respectful and dignified manner”, says the government statement.

Mr Thomas will retain ‘moral rights’ to the flag.

He said in a statement via the Federal Government that he hoped “this arrangement brings comfort to all Aboriginal and Australian people to use the flag, unaltered, proudly and without restriction.”