The Australian government has paid AU$20m (£10.5m) to purchase the copyright of the Aboriginal flag, resolving a dispute over its ownership. The purchase means that anyone can now use the flag in their own artwork or on clothing.
Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away.Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians
The copyright was held by the artist Harold Thomas, who designed it in 1971. It was first flown at a land rights rally in Adelaide, before gaining widespread recognition as a symbol for Aboriginal Australians. It has long been flown alongside the Australian national flag on government buildings and at sporting events.
A campaign to #freetheflag began after Thomas granted the rights to use the design on apparel to a company called WAM Clothing in 2018, who then issued infringement notices to groups using the flag without their permission, including Aboriginal non-profit groups. WAM is owned by the former art dealer Ben Wooster, whose previous company Birubi Art was fined AU$2.3m (£1.2m) in 2018 for selling "Aboriginal artworks" that were actually made in Indonesia.
The money paid by the Australian government includes a fee to purchase the copyright from Thomas and fees to licensees including WAM Clothing. An annual AU$100,000 (£53,000) scholarship for Indigenous students will be set up in Thomas’s name, and all profits from commercial sales of the flag will go to National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (Naidoc). The Australian government said that Thomas would use AU$2m (£1.1m) to “make periodic disbursements aligned with interests of Aboriginal Australians and the flag”.
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said: “Over the last 50 years we made Harold Thomas’s artwork our own—we marched under the Aboriginal flag, stood behind it, and flew it high as a point of pride. In reaching this agreement to resolve the copyright issues, all Australians can freely display and use the flag to celebrate Indigenous culture. Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away.”