A copyright dispute ensnares the Aboriginal flag

THE ABORIGINAL flag has been an emblem of pride and protest for half a century. Its colours—black, red and yellow—represent Australia’s first people, their connection to the land and the life-giving sun. It is hoisted over schools and waved at sporting fixtures. It flies periodically over Sydney’s famous Harbour Bridge. Yet Aboriginals fear its very existence is under threat.

The issue is copyright. Australia’s government has officially adopted the flag, but its design is still owned by the man who created it, Harold Thomas, an Aboriginal artist. He conceived it in the 1970s as a banner for the campaign to allow Aboriginals to reclaim their traditional lands. The image was reproduced fairly freely until 2018, when he sold exclusive rights to its use on apparel and “digital and physical media products” to WAM Clothing, a private firm.

WAM has since chased down many firms and charities for royalties. The Victorian Aboriginal Health Service was told it would have to pay to use the flag on T-shirts, a recent Senate inquiry heard. These were sold at cost to patients to encourage them to attend check-ups. Diabetes Victoria, another non-profit, had to stop using the flag on its website because WAM demanded payment.

“How could one company have a monopoly on an iconic symbol?” wonders Laura Thompson, an indigenous health...

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