Giant Aboriginal flag in Invasion Day protest in Brisbane's CBD. Courtesy of ABC (Julie Hornsey), 2019.
The Aboriginal Flag has finally been freed! As of yesterday, it became public news that the Commonwealth has won copyright for the free use of the Aboriginal flag. It is certainly exciting news that the Aboriginal flag has been freed well before the upcoming anniversary of the Aboriginal flag being flown for the first time, which initially occurred in Adelaide’s Victoria Square on the 12th of July in 1971 (ABC News, 2022).
How did the Aboriginal Flag become copyrighted?
Unlike most official national flags, the Aboriginal flag was not owned by the government and was the only flag in the world that was copyrighted. Luritja artist and activist Harold Thomas designed the Aboriginal flag in 1971 to symbolize the resistance, strength and resilience of Aboriginal peoples during the modern civil and land rights movement. The following year, it became the official flag for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra where rallies and protests were held regularly (Monash University, 2022).
In a press statement, Luritja activist and artist explained to the ABC News (2022) the symbolism behind the Aboriginal flag:
“The Flag represents the timeless history of our land and our people’s time on it. It is an introspection and appreciation of who we are.”
It draws from the history of our ancestors, our land, and our identity and will honour these well into the future."
Activists at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Old Parliament House, 1974. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia (Australian Information Service), 2022.
In 1994, the Commonwealth gave the Aboriginal flag legal recognition as it became widely accepted and important within Australian society. The following year, the flag was proclaimed by the Governor-General as a Flag of Australia under the Flags Act 1953. In 1997, Thomas was successful in claiming authorship of the flag before the Federal Court, and subsequently the flag became fully protected under copyright law. Over the years, Thomas made arrangements with several companies, awarding copyright licenses for the use of the flag on souvenir items, gifts and clothing (Monash University, 2022).
The pride of the flag to Aboriginal peoples became clear to the wider Australian audience when Cathy Freeman proudly draped herself in both the Aboriginal and Australian flags after winning gold in the 400m race in the 2000 Sydney Olympics (BBC News,2020).
In 2018, Thomas granted worldwide exclusive rights to WAM Clothing to use the Aboriginal flag on their clothing. Ever since, the non-Indigenous owned company has issued out several cease and desist notices left, right and centre, including to many NRL and AFL clubs for using the flag on their players’ club jerseys for their inaugural Indigenous Round. They also allegedly threatened legal action against several small Aboriginal community groups, non-for-profits and health organisations. One being the Indigenous Wellbeing Centre (IWC) in Bundaberg, who were charged $2,200 in 2019 for using the Aboriginal flag on free t-shirts that they gave to their patients who came into the clinic for a preventive health check (Monash University, 2022).
In protest of all this, many Indigenous political leaders, non-for-profits, social enterprises, community groups and allies rallied together, supporting the #PrideNotProfit petition. Indigenous sporting teams also replaced the Aboriginal flag logo on their jerseys with the Free The Flag logo in support of the petition. The petition called on the government to do "everything in its power to free the flag, and get it back so it can be used by the whole community; at the same time as respecting Mr Harold Thomas" (BBC News, 2020).
The Free Flag
Harold Thomas, designer of the Aboriginal flag. Courtesy of ABC News (Nick Hose), 2019.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt (2022) announced in a press release that, following negotiations with Harold Thomas, the Aboriginal flag now belongs to all Australians:
"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.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison reported that the Aboriginal flag will now follow the same protocols as the Australian national flag, where its use is free, but must be presented in a "respectful and dignified way."
"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,” Prime Minister Morrison said.
The Morrison Government has also agreed to establish an annual scholarship fund worth $100,000 in Harold Thomas’ honour for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to have the opportunity to develop significant skills in leadership, and to create an online education and history portal for the Aboriginal flag (ABC News, 2022).ABC News (2022) reported that Thomas has “agreed to give up copyright in return for all future royalties the Commonwealth receives from commercial flag sales to be put towards the ongoing work of NAIDOC.”
Moving forwards, Thomas hopes that “this arrangement provides comfort to all Aboriginal people and Australians to use the Flag, unaltered, proudly and without restriction.”