Australian government secures copyright of Aboriginal flag after row

Protesters fly the Aboriginal flag over a march in Melbourne on Australia Day in 2019
The Aboriginal flag was designed in 1971

The Australian government has bought the Aboriginal flag’s copyright in a bid to “free” the symbol of identity from bitter fights over who can use it.

Indigenous artist Harold Thomas created the flag in 1971 as a protest image but it is now the dominant Aboriginal emblem and an official national flag. Despite this, many Aboriginal people say the flag has been “held hostage” by copyright deals that limit its display.

The flag can now be reproduced by anyone without fear of legal threats.

“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,” said Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt. “Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no-one can take it away.”

The government paid more than $20m (£11m; $14m) in total to secure the copyright from Mr Thomas and to terminate lease agreements, media reports said. It has followed pressure from Aboriginal groups and controversies in sports such as the Australian Football League (AFL), which began refusing to pay leaseholders to display the flag.

“The flag belongs to all Aboriginal people. Why do they have to pay for it?” one petition organiser, Laura Thompson, told the BBC in 2020. “It’s a symbol of our people’s survival. Many of us don’t identify with the Australian flag because for us it represents colonisation and invasion.”

Cathy Freeman wearing the Aboriginal and Australian flags after her win at the Olympics in 2000
Cathy Freeman famously celebrated with the Aboriginal and Australian flags after winning a gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics

Mr Thomas has previously said he leased rights to the flag to receive royalties for his artwork, and to prevent knock-offs made overseas. “In the future, the flag will remain, not as a symbol of struggle, but as a symbol of pride and unity,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday.

Though Aboriginal Australians have widely welcomed the change, some have queried why it was announced 24 hours before Australia Day. The annual holiday on 26 January is controversial because it commemorates the arrival of Britain’s First Fleet in 1788. Many Australians call it “invasion day”.

“[Prime Minister Scott 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,” Aboriginal artist Rachael Sarra wrote on Instagram on Tuesday.

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