Australia pays $14 million for copyright to Aboriginal flag, making it free for all to display

For five decades, Australia’s Indigenous peoples have raised a black, red and yellow flag to represent their identity.

Because of copyright law, however, the flag has not been free for all to use.

That changed Tuesday when, after years of legal battles, Australia’s government said it had acquired the flag’s copyright, making it free to be replicated by anyone without a fee or formal agreement. In exchange, the government paid more than $14 million to the flag’s original artist and other license holders.

Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas first created the flag in 1971 as a protest symbol. It is horizontally split between black — which represents Australia’s Aboriginal peoples — and red — which symbolizes the earth and people’s relationship to it. The yellow sun in the center is an indicator of the life cycle.

The flag’s prominence quickly grew, and in 1995, it was formalized as the national flag for Australia’s Indigenous communities.

But controversy stirred in 2018 when Thomas gave exclusive licensing rights to a non-Indigenous company, Wam Clothing, which began to threaten to fine companies that violated the copyright. Indigenous communities started a campaign to “free the Flag” and gained support from organizations such as sporting clubs and health organisations that used the image frequently on other material.

Some leaders of Australia’s Indigenous communities praised Tuesday’s deal, which was several years in the making.

“Over the last 50 years, we made Harold Thomas’s artwork our own — we marched under the Aboriginal flag, stood behind it, and flew it high as a point of pride,” Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said, according to the BBC. “Now that the commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away.”

Acquiring the copyright puts the Indigenous flag on par with Australia’s national flag, which is free to be replicated in a “respectful and dignified way,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

“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,” Morrison said. “We’ve freed the Aboriginal flag for Australians.”

Some Indigenous people, however, criticized Morrison’s comments as misrepresenting the flag as a symbol of identity.

“The Aboriginal flag does not belong to all Australians,” Bronwyn Carlson, director of the Center for Global Indigenous Futures at Macquarie University, wrote in the Conversation, an Australia-based media network. “It belongs, like the land, to us as a symbol of our sovereignty.”

The government announced the deal one day before Australia Day, an annual holiday celebrating when the first British fleet reached the country in 1788. Indigenous peoples also remember the day as the beginning of European colonialization, and an invasion on their land.

Morrison “is diverting the narrative so come Jan 26 he can claim to be a hero and miss the whole point of why we protest every year,” Rachael Sarra, an Aboriginal artist, wrote on Instagram.

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