In 1971, Harold Thomas, a Luritja man of Central Australia, the first Aboriginal person to graduate from an art school in Australia, designed the Australian flag.
In 2019 Aboriginal people first became aware that they would have to fight to “free the flag” as it’s use is protected under copyright law.
Since it was designed, the flag has become synonymous with representation of Aboriginal people, often flown simultaneously with the flag of the Torres Strait Islander people. Most education and care services would have at least one representation of their flag in their service, possibly multiple.
Harold Thomas said that the red of the flag was to represent the ochre colour of the earth (focusing on the relationship that Aboriginal people have with the land), the yellow to represent the sun (the giver of life) and the black to represent the Aboriginal people of Australia. As well as being an artist, Harold is a land rights activist who said that he designed the flag with bright colours so that it would stand out in demonstrations.
In 1995 the Australian Government recognised both the Aboriginal Flag and the Torres Strait Islander flags as National flags of Australia. Copyright for the Torres Strait Islander flag is held by the Torres Strait Regional Council, whereas copyright for the Aboriginal Flag is held by Mr Thomas.
Last year several companies that reproduce the Aboriginal flag on clothing were sent cease and desist letters by the non-indigenous company that had been granted exclusive rights by Mr Thomas to reproduce the flag on clothing. (This same company has since also been granted rights for reproduction on physical and digital media.)
Obviously Mr Thomas has the right to be remunerated for the use of his design and obviously a company that has legally purchased exclusive rights has the right to pursue copyright breaches, but for many Aboriginal people, what has happened is a travesty.
We believe the flag belongs to all Aboriginal people and all should have a right to use it, whenever they want without cost or the need to seek consent.
Particularly jarring for many Aboriginal people is the fact that the organisation that acquired the rights is non-Indigenous and had previously been found guilty in the Federal Court of misleading consumers over the authenticity of Aboriginal art objects.
One of the Indigenous companies that were warned about using the flag on clothing they had produced for years started a movement to Free the Flag.
A motion was passed by the Australian Senate last year calling on the Federal Government “to do everything they can to ensure that all First Nations peoples and communities can use the flag whenever they want, without cost or the need for consent”.
Given it is the only Australian Flag that is privately owned, the Federal Government could purchase the copyright to ensure it can be used by all.
Surely it is time to Free the Flag?
Image courtesy of Freetheflag.net