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Indigenous Australians Demand Government Acquire Rights to Aboriginal Flag

People carry Australian Aboriginal flags during a demonstration on Australia Day in Sydney, Jan. 26, 2019.
People carry Australian Aboriginal flags during a demonstration on Australia Day in Sydney, Jan. 26, 2019.

Opposition politicians are urging the Australian government to commandeer the design of the Aboriginal flag if copyright disputes aren’t resolved. The flag was created almost 50 years ago as part of the Aboriginal land rights movement.

The top half of the Aboriginal flag is black, to symbolize Australia’s original inhabitants. The red in the lower half represents the earth, and the circle of yellow in the center signifies the sun. It was created by Harold Thomas, an Indigenous artist, in 1971.

He owns the copyright and has granted exclusive licenses to three non-Aboriginal companies, which use the design on flags, souvenirs and clothing. These commercial arrangements have been investigated by a parliamentary committee.

Opposition Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said she is dismayed that sporting and other organizations in Australia have been threatened with legal action for unauthorized use of the flag.

“Aboriginal people do not want to be held to ransom for the use of something that has been a symbol of pride and activism over decades,” she said.

A “Free the Flag” campaign has attracted much attention online. It is supported by Nova Peris, a former Australian senator and Olympian.

“The fact that the Aboriginal flag has a copyright on it is wrong,” Peris said. “The Aboriginal flag is a symbol of our identity and our connection to the land, and we should not be subjected to an individual’s decision on when or where we can celebrate our pride.”

The Senate inquiry has been weighing the symbolic power of the Aboriginal flag against an individual’s private property rights. It has concluded that the government should not use its constitutional powers to acquire the Aboriginal flag. However, opposition members of the committee have insisted the design should be commandeered if freer access to the flag can’t be negotiated by Australia Day in January.