The combat to ‘free’ the Aboriginal flag

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By Frances Mao
BBC News, Sydney

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picture captionThe Aboriginal flag is widespread sight round Australia
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A black band to characterize the individuals. Red for his or her connection to land. A yellow circle within the centre for the solar.

This is the design of the Aboriginal flag, which is seen throughout Australia – atop bridges and buildings, painted on partitions, printed on T-shirts.

Originally a protest flag, it is now recognised because the dominant image of Australia’s Aboriginal individuals and is an official flag of the nation.

So when it emerged final 12 months that some Aboriginal individuals had been ordered to cease utilizing it, many have been confounded. Few individuals had identified the flag was constrained by copyright legal guidelines.

Currently, even Aboriginal teams should pay a non-Aboriginal-run enterprise to breed the flag on clothes and merchandise.

The state of affairs has angered many individuals. Indigenous MP Linda Burney – who has the flag tattooed on her arm – has declared the image is being “held hostage”.

Amid growing stress, Australia’s authorities is now reported to be contemplating taking on the copyright, however it faces complicated authorized and cultural points.

How did this occur?

Unlike most official flags, it’s not owned by the federal government. Instead the flag belongs to Harold Thomas, an Aboriginal artist who designed it in 1971 for his individuals’s civil rights motion.

Mr Thomas retains the total copyright – a standing clarified by a authorized battle within the 1990s – and he has leased copy rights to totally different corporations through the years.

Most lately, in 2018, he signed a take care of a agency referred to as WAM Clothing. It offers the corporate unique world rights to make use of the flag on clothes, bodily media and digital media.

Side view of Harold Thomas in 1994 framed in the centre of an Aboriginal flag backdroppicture copyrightFairfax Media through Getty Images
picture captionThe flag’s designer, Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas, in 1994

Unlike earlier lease holders, the corporate has aggressively enforced these rights. Several Aboriginal organisations – together with not-for-profits – have discovered this out the laborious means.

“I received a cease-and-desist letter from some attorneys who informed me that I needed to cease promoting the garments inside three days,” stated Gunditjmara girl Laura Thompson. She runs an enterprise which used to promote T-shirts with the flag on them, to boost cash for an Aboriginal medical service.

Outraged by the authorized menace, she began a marketing campaign referred to as Free the Flag. Her on-line petition has obtained near 150,000 signatures – it was offered to parliament final 12 months.

“How can one particular person or enterprise have a monopoly over it? The flag belongs to all Aboriginal individuals. Why have they got to pay for it?” she informed the BBC on the time.

“It’s a logo of our individuals’s survival. Many of us do not establish with the Australian flag as a result of for us it represents colonisation and invasion.”

Laura Thompson wearing an Aboriginal flag draped around her shoulderspicture copyrightGetty Images
picture captionLaura Thompson has launched a combat to “free the flag”

She added: “We’re those who elevated it and gave it the standing it now has.”

WAM Clothing has since supplied Ms Thompson free use of the flag, however she refused, incensed by what she noticed as a non-Aboriginal firm in search of to revenue from Aboriginal identification.

Community anger has additionally escalated over reviews that one in every of WAM Clothing’s homeowners was beforehand concerned in a enterprise which bought pretend Aboriginal artwork.


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In the previous 12 months, a number of Aboriginal politicians and distinguished figures have joined the copyright protest.

But, maybe typical of sports-crazy Australia, the problem gained most consideration when the Australian Football League (AFL) refused to proceed paying for the flag final month. Other sports activities – similar to Australian rugby – have adopted swimsuit.

The AFL stated it would not use the flag in its Indigenous spherical – themed video games which rejoice Aboriginal contributions to the sport – in assist the Free the Flag marketing campaign. Previously, the flag had been painted on the sector and featured on the gamers’ jumpers.

All groups signed the pledge, and urged spectators to put on or wave the flag as an alternative. Observers additionally famous, nevertheless, that it allowed the AFL – cash-strapped by the pandemic – to avoid wasting cash.

But the Aboriginal flag has lengthy featured in moments of nationwide delight. Sprinter Cathy Freeman famously carried it in addition to the Australian flag after profitable gold within the 400m on the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Cathy Freeman wearing the Aboriginal and Australian flags after her win at the Olympics in 2000picture copyrightGetty Images
picture captionOlympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman with the Aboriginal and Australian flags

Earlier this week, the Senate accepted an inquiry into the flag’s licensing rights. Lawmakers additionally handed a movement saying business pursuits have been limiting the flag’s use and “placing revenue earlier than delight”.

It referred to as on the federal government to do “every part in its energy to free the flag, and get it again so it may be utilized by the entire neighborhood; concurrently respecting Mr Harold Thomas”.

Complex dialogue

But is that this potential? Under Australia’s copyright legal guidelines, consultants say Mr Thomas and WAM Clothing are totally entitled to licence and copy charges.

In an announcement final week, WAM Clothing’s founders stated they’d not cease people from utilizing the flag for private causes. But clothes used commercially or to advertise an organisation could be handled in a different way, they stated.

Mr Thomas has stated he leased rights to the flag to obtain royalties for his art work, and to stop knock-offs made abroad.

He declined to talk to the BBC, however informed an Aboriginal radio station final 12 months that he had endured a lot criticism over the problem.

“The first lie that has been told is that I sold the Aboriginal flag- that’s an outright lie,” he informed CAAMA Radio. He described recommendations he had betrayed his personal individuals as “slander”.

Last 12 months, a spokesman for Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt informed the BBC: “It will not be the federal government’s place to inform Mr Thomas who he ought to or shouldn’t do enterprise with.”

But native media has now reported the federal government could also be open to buying the copyright from Mr Thomas.

Writing in The Australian newspaper on Friday, Mr Wyatt stated pitting authorized rights in opposition to neighborhood was a “delicate and delicate matter”.

But he added: “I decide to doing every part I can to carry a few decision that respects not solely the artist of the flag, however a decision respects the rights, enterprise and alternative of all Australians.”

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