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The Aborigines were not allowed to use their flag for a long time. Australia’s government has now bought the flag’s copyright. Some just find the timing inappropriate

The Australian Aboriginal flag copyright dispute has finally been settled: the Australian government has bought the copyright to finally make the flag common property.

The Aboriginal flag has a distinctive design and is visible from afar when waving in the wind with its distinctive black and red background and yellow circle. Indigenous Australians are proud of their symbolism, and indigenous politician Linda Burney even had the flag tattooed on her upper arm. She once wrote on Twitter: “The Aboriginal flag is a symbol that connects.”

One of the official flags

The flag used to be a sign of protest, but is now one of the official Australian flags. It stands for all indigenous peoples in the country, only the residents of the Torres Strait Islands have their own flag. Until now, however, few people were aware that the flag was copyrighted. This meant that anyone wanting to use the flag to reproduce it on clothing or other goods had to pay dearly – even indigenous companies and organizations.

The design of the flag was first unveiled in 1971 for National Aboriginal Day in Adelaide. A year later, the design was used in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, where Aboriginal representatives fought for indigenous rights in front of the Parliament building in Canberra. However, the design did not become the official flag of the Australian Aborigines until 1995.

It took two more years for an Australian federal court to decide who the real artist behind the design was. Copyright was eventually awarded to Indigenous artist Harold Thomas. In a recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Thomas wrote that he originally created the flag “as a symbol of unity and pride”.

Held hostage icon

But in recent years there have been repeated disputes about the copyright of the flag. Some sporting events, for example, received a cease and desist letter from the company that had temporarily rented it after using the flag design on their jerseys. The small indigenous fashion label Clothing the Gap, which puts profits into the health promotion of Aboriginal communities, was also warned. Outraged by the legal threat, the owner of the company launched a campaign in 2020 called “Free the Flag”. Indigenous politician Linda Burney even said at the time that the symbol was being “held hostage”.

The situation has now been resolved with the Australian government paying more than A$20 million to copyright the flag, according to local media reports. This means that the flag can be reproduced by anyone without fear of legal consequences. “Now that the Commonwealth owns copyright, it belongs to everyone and nobody can take it away,” said Ken Wyatt, Australia’s Indigenous Minister.

However, some Australian Aborigines questioned the timing of the purchase. Australia celebrates its national holiday on Wednesday. The day has long been disputed as it marks the arrival of the “First Fleet” from Britain in 1788. Many indigenous Australians in particular therefore tend to speak of “Invasion Day” – i.e. the day on which their country was taken by the British.

criticism of the government

The indigenous artist Rachael Sarra then accused the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a post on Instagram of wanting to distract from what the indigenous people would protest about every year. “Copyright belongs to the same government that took our land and benefited from it and the same government that took our children away,” Sarra wrote, referring to the so-called stolen generations violently stolen by the Australian government for decades over the past century removed from their homes and placed in orphanages and institutions.

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