Wednesday, January 26, 2022

On Tuesday, the day preceding Australia Day, the Australian government announced it had purchased the copyright to the Australian Aboriginal Flag for A$20.05 million.

The flag, created by Luritja man Harold Thomas in 1970, represents the connection Aboriginal people have to the land. It was adopted as a national flag in 1995, however copyright remained with Thomas. The flag could not be used without his approval or compensation.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised the flag would be treated in a comparable way to the national flag, which can be used by anyone so long as it is displayed in a “respectful and dignified way.”

Morrison promised: “All Australians can now put the Aboriginal Flag on apparel such as sports jerseys and shirts, it can be painted on sports grounds, included on websites, in paintings and other artworks, used digitally and in any other medium without having to ask for permission or pay a fee,”

“We’ve freed the Aboriginal Flag for Australians.”

Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said: “Over the last 50 years we made Harold Thomas’ artwork our own — we marched under the Aboriginal Flag, stood behind it, and flew it high as a point of pride,”

“Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no-one can take it away.”

The commercial arrangements surrounding the flag were highlighted in 2019 after one of the clothing companies holding a licence for the flag, WAM Clothing, gave notices to the National Rugby League and Australian Football League, alleging jerseys worn at their Indigenous round infringed upon their copyright. At the time, Wyatt urged football fans to show their objections to the claim by clothing themselves in the flag. It is understood several other organisations were given similar notices.

Under the agreed deal, the government paid A$20.05 million to Thomas and licence holders to secure copyright and buy back the rights of licence holders. They have pledged to:

  • transfer future royalties from commercial flag sales into a fund to support NAIDOC Week;
  • establish a A$100 thousand scholarship in Thomas’ honour for Indigenous students to develop leadership skills;
  • accept and display a painting by Thomas celebrating the flag’s 50th anniversary and the transfer of copyright;
  • create a web portal for flag history and education.

Bangarang woman Geraldine Atkinson told Nine News she was “absolutely pleased” about the flag passing to the government, saying the news gave Indigenous Australians something to celebrate on Australia Day. Atkinson said: “When I read it, it was the first I’d heard about it, and I punched the air, I was so excited […] We’re not going to be celebrating the day, but we’re going to be celebrating our flag. We’re going to be celebrating that we can fly our flag, and wear it on our shirts.”

While Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe welcomed the news, she was wary about the deal, saying: “I’m concerned that the Commonwealth owns the copyright over our flag and what that means for the unceded sovereignty and the self-determination of our people […] We need to have genuine conversations about what it means for the Commonwealth to own the copyright of our flag and if any other models of community ownership were seriously considered. For the moment, this is a win.”

Labor Party Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said she would be scrutinising the deal during the Senate’s forthcoming budget estimates: “I look forward to scrutinising this deal and examining the details through Senate Estimates next month, in particular the copyright and custodianship of the flag”. McCarthy went on to state, “Scott Morrison and the Indigenous Affairs Minister need to also clarify where the money for this deal is coming from.”

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