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What Exactly Does ‘Free The Flag’ Mean? A Breakdown

Here's how to show your support

Update, 03/09/20: Following an outcry from the Australian public for the government to secure the rights to the Aboriginal flag, Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt is now in talks to securing those rights. 

“I commit to doing everything I can to bring about a resolution that respects not only the artist of the flag but a resolution that respects the rights, enterprise and opportunity of all Australians,” Wyatt said in a statement on Sep. 3. 

“Morrison government launched a consultation process to grow the Indigenous visual arts industry, and with it, specifically look at ensuring relevant legal protections for Indigenous artists,” he added.

Original, 24/08/20: Last week as the AFL headed into its annual Sir Doug Nicholls Round, cries to “Free The Flag” became more prevalent than ever. But, this debate is by no means new and has been one that many have been passionately campaigning for years. 

But, what exactly does the statement mean? Below, we breakdown the “Free The Flag” campaign and how you can lend your support. 

What Is The History Of The Aboriginal Flag? 

The Aboriginal flag was created by Luritja artist Harold Thomas and first used for Adelaide’s National Aboriginal Day in 1971. It was the following year that the symbol gained national recognition when it was used at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – a permanent Indigenous protest site outside Canberra’s Parliament House. 

The flag design is steeped in symbolism: the black on top represents Australia’s First Nations people, the red on the bottom represents the connection to Earth, and the yellow circle symbolises the sun, the giver of life. 

Two decades later, in 1995, the Governer-General issued a proclamation that declared the iconic symbol to become the official flag of the Aboriginal people of Australia.

Following that court ruling, several artists came forward claiming to be the flags creator, but in 1997, the federal court officially recognised Thomas as its sole author. 

What Rights Does Harold Thomas Hold?

As the creator and sole copyright holder, Thomas is the flag’s owner and can grant licences to other parties to make copies of the flag, or refuse permission altogether. Under Australian law, the copyright will last for 70 years after Thomas’ death, per The Guardian

In a 1997 court ruling, Thomas struck a worldwide licencing agreement with three companies – WAM Clothing, Gifts Mate and Flagworld – giving them exclusive rights to use the design.

WAM Clothing Controversy

In 2018, Thomas granted WAM Clothing, a non-Indigenous company, the worldwide exclusive rights to the use of the Aboriginal flag on clothing. Since gaining that license, the company has issued cease and desist notices to companies including the AFL (which uses the flag on club jerseys for its Indigenous round) and Spark Health, an Indigenous social enterprise. 

Spark Health are also the creators behind Clothing The Gap, a small Indigenous-owned fashion label that commits 100 per cent of profits to support health promotion activities in Aboriginal communities. The Victorian-based business received legal letters demanding they stop printing the flag on their merchandise. 

Letters have also been sent to several small Aboriginal community groups, including charities and health organisations.

WAM Clothing has also come under fire as it is part-owned by a man who has previously been prosecuted by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for selling fake Aboriginal art. 

When Was Free The Flag Campaign Launched? 

The Free The Flag campaign was launched by Clothing the Gap in 2019 to call for new licensing agreements over the flag’s design, particularly for Aboriginal businesses and organisations.

“This is not a question of who owns the copyright of the Flag. This is a question of control,” the company states. “Should WAM Clothing, a non-Indigenous business, hold the monopoly in a market to profit off Aboriginal peoples’ identity and love for ‘their’ flag? We believe that this control of the market by a non-Indigenous business has to stop.”

The campaign wants the Aboriginal flag to be “celebrated, shared and worn” for #PrideNotProfit, and is currently lobbying government and relevant bodies to take action. 

As of August 2020, every single AFL club has signed on to support the Free The Flag campaign. 

What Is Being Done By The Government? 

In 2019, the federal minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said he was “hopeful” to finding a resolution, but ruled out the government buying the copyright of the flag. 

Wyatt has also said he has had discussions with Thomas in regards to reaching an agreement but did not disclose any details. “I won’t disclose the detail of those [discussions]…I’m very cognisant of IP and I’m working with my agency in looking for a way forward that does not breach the individual ownership of the product by any Australian.”

Where Can You Show Your Support? 

Clothing The Gap has listed the many ways we can show support.

Sign the #PrideNotProfit petition which currently has over 130,000 signatures.

Sign here.

Donate to Free The Flag’s GoFundMe.

Donate here

Write to your local member of Parliament. 

Download the ministerial letter template.

Support with ‘Free The Flag’ merch

Shop here

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