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‘It belongs to everyone’: Australian government buys rights to Aboriginal flag for $14 million

<i>James D. Morgan/Getty Images</i><br/>The Australian national flag flies alongside the Aboriginal flag atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge on May 26
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James D. Morgan/Getty Images
The Australian national flag flies alongside the Aboriginal flag atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge on May 26

Oscar Holland, CNN

Australia’s government has bought the copyright to the Aboriginal flag, making it freely available for public use and ending a longstanding battle over the design.

In a deal worth more than 20 million Australian dollars ($14 million), Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government secured the rights from Indigenous artist Harold Thomas, who created the flag over 50 years ago.

The agreement means the flag can now be reproduced on clothing, merchandise, sports jerseys or artworks — without permission and free of charge. In a statement, Morrison said the flag had been “freed,” adding that his administration had “sought to protect the integrity of the Aboriginal Flag, in line with Harold Thomas’ wishes.”

The red, black and yellow design has been recognized as an official flag of Australia since 1995. But it became the subject of a commercial dispute when a company that licensed the image from Thomas began demanding payment from various organizations using it, including a health charity, several clothing brands and Australia’s National Rugby League.

A 2020 parliamentary inquiry, which supported government efforts to acquire the rights from the artist, described the licensee’s actions as “heavy-handed” but “entirely legal.”

A “Free the Flag” campaign, founded in 2019, called for an end to the exclusive licensing agreements. It gained support from several high-profile Aboriginal Australians, including former Olympian Nova Peris.

In a statement, minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, described the flag as an “enduring symbol close to the heart of Aboriginal people,” adding: “Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away.”

Designed by Thomas ahead of a demonstration in Adelaide in 1971, the flag has since become an emblem for Aboriginal Australians and is often seen flying from government buildings. The design’s yellow circle represents the sun and the black stripe symbolizes Indigenous people, while the red portion relates to both their blood and the earth.

In an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, Thomas described the flag as a “deeply personal” artwork.

“When I created the flag, I created it as a symbol of unity and pride,” he wrote. “That pride we have for our identity that harks back to the birthing of our dreaming, to the present existence and beyond. And we humble ourselves and give homage to all that has been created and left for us.

“The flag was never intended to be a political platform. In the future, the flag will remain, not as a symbol of struggle, but as a symbol of pride and unity.”

Thomas also revealed he had minted a digital copy of the flag as an NFT, or non-fungible token. He said he intends to keep the digital token on “an ongoing basis, on behalf of Indigenous communities.”

Ongoing questions

The deal was welcomed by the opposition Labor Party, with shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, using a TV appearance on Sky News Australia to express her “enormous sense of relief” that the flag was “set free.”

But others questioned the timing of the deal, which was announced the day before the country’s increasingly controversial national day, Australia Day. Writing on Instagram, Indigenous artist Rachael Sarra accused Morrison of “diverting the narrative so come (January) 26 he can claim to be a hero.”

Lidia Thorpe, senator for the Australian state of Victoria, meanwhile questioned whether the flag’s copyright should be held by the national government, rather than the Indigenous community. “This is a win for grassroots people who fought for our right to use our flag, but I’m worried that it’s not going into community control,” she tweeted. “The Aboriginal flag belongs with Aboriginal people.”

Morrison’s office said in a news release that Thomas will retain “his moral rights” over the design. And while the flag has been freed for personal use, the textile printing firm Carroll & Richardson Flagworld will “remain the exclusive licensed manufacturer and provider of Aboriginal Flags and bunting.” Royalties from those sales will go towards the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC), with the government also announcing a new 100,000 Australian dollar ($71,000) scholarship in Thomas’ honor.

In an email to CNN, the National Indigenous Australians Agency confirmed the multi-million-dollar figure includes both the fee paid to Thomas and “payments to the licensees for termination of their licenses.”

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