The iconic symbol of the Australian Aboriginal flag was recently freed from Copyright constraints that restrained its public use. Prior to the Prime Minister’ announcement on 25 January 2022, the Aboriginal flag was under the ownership of Harold Thomas, the artist of the flag, which meant that any use of the flag had to be licenced by him, often for the payment of a fee.
In 2018, Thomas granted WAM Clothing Pty Ltd (WAM) an exclusive licence to use the Aboriginal flag on clothing, which meant that the flag could not be used by anyone else. Notably, the Australian Football League refused to pay WAM for use of the Aboriginal Flag so they were unable to include the flag in their annual round dedicated to the recognition of Indigenous players and culture. The flag had to be removed from the centre circle of AFL ovals, goal umpire signals and the clothing of players.
To combat this ongoing issue, there were relatively few options. Australia could either wait for copyright protection to lapse (which would mean waiting for 70 years after Mr Thomas’ death), seeking permission from Mr Thomas (which would require him to terminate his agreement with WAM, or the Government could buy the copyright. The Australian Government decided to opt for the latter option, and purchased the copyright ownership over the flag in order to make it publicly available. Despite giving up ownership of the work, Harold Thomas retains his ‘moral rights’ in respect of the flag, which includes a right to be attributed as author, and a right against having his work subjected to derogatory treatment.