The Aboriginal Flag Is Now Free from Copyright, but What Does That Mean for Indigenous Australians?

The Aboriginal Flag Is Now Free from Copyright, but What Does That Mean for Indigenous Australians?
Image: Getty

The Australian Aboriginal flag is now free for public use after the federal government struck a $20 million copyright deal with the flag’s creator, Luritija artist Harold Thomas.

The flag was first designed by Thomas in 1971. Since then, it has been used as a symbol of hope, pride and strength of Indigenous culture. It connects all of us mob together and will continue to do so for years to come.

Red represents the red dirt and land which makes up most of Australia, yellow represents the sun and black represents Indigenous people.

Up until this point, Indigenous people had restricted usage of the flag. In 2018, Thomas gave the rights to a non-Indigenous company WAM Clothing so they could exclusively put the flag on their products.

Having a non-Indigenous clothing company hold exclusive commercial rights to our flag was obviously problematic and deeply distressing as First Nations businesses couldn’t even use the design of their own flag.

Thomas will still hold retain his moral rights over the flag and as a part of the deal, the Commonwealth has agreed that all future royalties from the flag will go towards NAIDOC funding. The government also announced that in Thomas’ honour, an annual scholarship of $100,000 will be established for Indigenous students to further Indigenous governance and leadership.

An online history and educational portal for the flag will also be established by The National Indigenous Australians Agency and an original painting by Thomas’ celebrating 50 years of the flag and the historic copyright transfer will be displayed “in a prominent location.”

The news was met with an overpouring of joy on social media.

It’s important to note that now the flag is free for public usage, many non-Indigenous companies will use it as a means of profit. When you buy a product with the flag on it, make sure it’s from a First Nations business.

What’s causing quite the stir, however, is Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments around the historic deal.

In a statement, Morrison announced, “We’ve freed the Aboriginal Flag for Australians”.

He added that the flag “Will now be managed in a similar way to the Australian National Flag, where its use is free but must be presented in a respectful and dignified way”.

Morrison’s choice of wording in “we’ve freed” the flag is picking up attention for the fact that it was largely due to the work of Clothing the Gaps and their Free The Flag campaign.

What’s interesting to me is what Morrison went on to say about the significance of the flag now being free for public usage.

“All Australians can now put the Aboriginal Flag on apparel such as sports jerseys and shirts, it can be painted on sports grounds … without having to ask permission or pay a fee,” Morrison said.

From this, it’s clear to me that Morrison does not completely understand why it’s such a monumental feat to have the right to use our own flag.

We never wanted the rights to our flag just so it can be put on sporting fields and clothes. We wanted it because like everything else, we have not been afforded the same equal treatment. Celebrating our culture has always come at a price.

The mention of sporting clubs using the flag for their jerseys is not unexpected, however, after WAM Clothing considered legal action against the AFL and NRL for putting the Aboriginal flag on uniforms. However, that is not why we as Indigenous people wanted our flag to be free for us to use.

As Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Affairs said, “The Aboriginal Flag is an enduring symbol close to the heart of Aboriginal people … all Australians can freely display and use the flag to celebrate Indigenous culture”.

He then goes on to add, “Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away”.

There’s obviously a clear difference in the sentiments behind both statements and it has lead to conversations around timing.

There has also been some interesting discourse circulating social media around how a flag cannot be free on land that was stolen and is now owned by the ones who took our rights off of us.

As an Indigenous person, I agree that it is hard not to be skeptical of announcements like these. With such a turbulent relationship with governments, it should come as no surprise.

Whilst I am interested to see how this develops and what is referenced come election time, for now, I am just happy that a piece of our culture has been somewhat given back to us.

Although this is an incredibly huge feat in the Indigenous rights movement, we must not get sidetracked. There is still a long way to go.

A flag is not land rights, it is not reducing Blak deaths in custody, it’s not giving us a voice in the constitution. Indigenous ways of fire management and climate care are still not being taken seriously. The government must not be given a free pass now that they have given us one thing.

We’ve always fought under this flag and we will continue to do so.

In terms of looking towards the future, some hope this news means that the Indigenous flag will now become an emoji after being one of the only flags not included.