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'Free the flag': Aboriginal businesses told not to use Aboriginal flag over copyright

The Age logo The Age 11/06/2019 Miki Perkins
a person posing for a picture: Gunditjmara Woman Laura Thompson, the managing director of Spark Health Australia and Clothing The Gap. © Luis Ascui Gunditjmara Woman Laura Thompson, the managing director of Spark Health Australia and Clothing The Gap.

The Aboriginal owners of two clothing businesses are shocked after receiving legal letters demanding they stop using the Aboriginal flag on their merchandise because it "violates Australian copyright laws".

The NRL, Cricket Australia and the AFL may also have been issued notices by Queensland-based WAM Clothing over the use of the Aboriginal flag on clothing, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald understand.

Clothing the Gap is a small "profit for purpose" business based in Preston, in Melbourne's north, which produces clothing and accessories that feature the Aboriginal flag, including contemporary T-shirts and towels.

Co-owner, managing director and Gunditjmara woman Laura Thompson says she was shocked to receive the legal letter.

"I love the flag so much, it’s heartbreaking. This flag has united everybody, all over Australia, from all the Aboriginal nations," Ms Thompson said.

"The flag represented a struggle and a resistance movement, and now it just feels like a struggle to use it."

The "cease and desist" letter from WAM Clothing says it holds the exclusive worldwide licence for the use of the Aboriginal flag on clothing.

The flag was designed by Luritja artist and land rights activist Uncle Harold Thomas in 1971.

He still holds copyright on the design, and permission for its use must go through him. He allows non-commercial operations that give health, educational, legal and other assistance to Aboriginal people to use images of the flag for free.

But the Luritja artist has licensing agreements with three companies; one to reproduce flags, and the others to reproduce the image on objects and clothing.

WAM Clothing secured the exclusive clothing licence last year. On its website the business states that Mr Thomas is paid royalties for every piece of clothing sold.

Ms Thompson wrote to Mr Thomas in August last year to ask for permission to enter a licensing agreement to use the Aboriginal flag on Clothing the Gap merchandise, but had no response.

Michael Connelly, the owner of Queensland-based Dreamtime Kullilla Art, has also received a legal letter from WAM Clothing.

Mr Connelly, a Kullilli and Murruwari man, said his family business started selling boomerangs 25 years ago and has grown into a commercial business that works with Aboriginal artists to sell fabric products all over the world.

"I just don’t know what to believe - I thought as Aboriginal people we have the right to our flag," Mr Connelly said.

"We’re all bewildered at the moment, trying to find out why Aboriginal people should be challenged to not use the Aboriginal flag in their businesses."

Ms Thompson said 17,000 people had joined an online petition calling for a change in the licensing agreement for the Aboriginal flag.

"We’ve been operating in a black market and we didn’t know it," she says with a wry chuckle. "Now we just want to free the flag."

Clothing the Gap is part of Spark Health Australia, an Aboriginal-owned business that runs health and wellbeing programs for the Indigenous community in Victoria. The 18-month-old business is currently in the process of being registered as a social enterprise.

All of the profits from the Clothing the Gap clothing sales go to providing health and wellbeing programs to Aboriginal people at no cost.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have contacted WAM clothing, and is waiting for a response.

WAM Clothing told the ABC it was "in discussions with the NRL, AFL and other organisations regarding the use of the Aboriginal flag on clothing".

More to come.

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