Free the Australian Indigenous Flag: Addendum

This post is an update. Read the original post here.

The “Free the Flag” campaign in Australia has come to what is generally seen as a happy resolution.

We previously reported on the long-simmering controversy over rights to the Aboriginal flag, which was designed in 1971 as a protest symbol by Indigenous artist and copyright holder Harold Thomas. Thomas granted an exclusive license to use the design on apparel to a non-Indigenous clothing company of dubious repute. Attempts by nonprofit Indigenous groups and sporting clubs to use the flag design were met with cease and desist letters from the company.

The Australian government intervened to look into current and former copyright and licensing arrangements for the Aboriginal flag and explore possible options. On January 25, 2022, one day before Australia Day, the government announced that it paid AU$20m (more than $14 million U.S. dollars) to purchase the copyright to the flag so that it can be freely used by all. The payment includes fees to Thomas for the copyright and fees to extinguish licenses, including that of the clothing company. In addition, an annual scholarship for Indigenous students is being created in Thomas’s name, and all profits from commercial use of the design will go to the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.

Despite the resolution, questions remain as to how much non-Indigenous companies were paid to extinguish their licenses and how future arrangements will work. Some oppose the idea that the Aboriginal flag should be seen as belonging to all Australians. The timing, one day before the annual Australia Day holiday – celebrating the arrival of the first British fleet in 1788, but seen by Indigenous communities as marking the invasion of their land – has also been criticized.