Why Aboriginal People Can’t Use The Design Of Their Own Flag

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There’s been huge controversy around the copyright of the Aboriginal flag after the AFL was told they weren’t allowed to use it at the 2020 Indigenous Round.

A clothing brand called WAM issued the ban in a move that outraged players and generally, lots of people across the country.

But the flag’s copyright issue is a lot more complicated than people might know, which is something the Free the Flag campaign drastically wants to change.

I want to understand how a non-Indigenous company came to hold the rights to a flag that should belong to the people it represents, and how that has sparked a national movement.

Laura Thompson: “As an Aboriginal woman myself I thought you know, that’s ridiculous no one should have a monopoly on a market and certainly I don’t want to ask non-Indigenous people if I can use my flag, and then I don’t want to have to pay for it.”

That’s Laura Thompson, a Gunditjmara woman who’s the co-founder and director of Clothing the Gap, the organisation behind the Free the Flag campaign.

Her team uses fashion to create social change for Indigenous people and they were using the Aboriginal flag in a lot of their designs.

That is, until they were issued a cease and desist letter from WAM clothing.

Who Actually Owns The Aboriginal Flag?

How could this happen?

It started back in 1971 when Luritja artist Harold Thomas designed the iconic red, yellow and black flag. It quickly became a symbol Indigenous people adopted into their culture.

Then in 1995 it was recognised as a national flag in Australia.

Previously when a country developed their flag, copyright laws hadn’t really existed, so no one really thought about whether the person who created it could technically own it.

But artist Harold Thomas did technically own the design of the Aboriginal flag and in 2018 he decided to make WAM Clothing the exclusive license holder for his design.

Since then, WAM have been actively using their licensing rights.

LT: “You’ll notice on the NAIDOC week posters there’s no Aboriginal flag. There’s no exception. So even if you’re a local sports team and you want to put the flag on here, you have to pay for that as well.”

Indigenous grassroots movements and organisers are using their flag less and less because of the fines they could face if they do.

Which really is the bigger reason why Thompson started campaigning.

LT: We are not connected to the AFL, we are not connected to the government. We created t-shirts to create conversations in communities because we wanted to create social change.”

Although the Free the Flag campaign is nearly a year old, it’s gained national attention after recent exposure from AFL teams supporting the cause.

But WAM still haven’t changed their position, nor has the current rightful owner Harold Thomas.

LT: Everyone I’ve ever spoken to that has written to Harold Thomas, has said they’ve never gotten a response. And I’ve got this vision of his PO box overflowing with requests to use the flag.”

Thompson would like to thank Thomas for developing a symbol that represents struggle and love for all Indigenous people and argues that it is really up to WAM to stop profiting off their identity.

In the meantime, Thompson is encouraging everyone to sign the petition #pridenotprofit, which now has over 130,000 signatures.

She doesn’t want to see this conversation about Australia’s rich Indigenous history end here or simply reach its limit when the AFL finishes its season.

The Takeaway

LT: I don’t want a question mark ever to be over an Aboriginal flag that people have tattooed on their body, that have wrapped over their coffin. You know, people have such an affiliation with the flag because the Australian flag doesn’t represent Aboriginal people.

So, it’s so important that we hold onto this symbol. People want to fight for their flag, and we’ve given up enough already, and I don’t want to give up our flag as well.”