Indigenous Australia

The Aboriginal Flag has been “Freed”. Here’s What That Means.

Continued support of Indigenous businesses is vital.
A flag
Don Arnold via Getty

In 1970, Luritja artist Harold Thomas created the Aboriginal flag as a representation of First Nations people and their connection to the land. The red soil, the yellow sun as protector, and black to represent the Indigenous people.

“When I created the flag, I created it as a symbol of unity and pride,” Thomas wrote in a piece for The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday. “That pride we have for our identity that harks back to the birthing of our dreaming, to the present existence and beyond.”


Now, in an agreement between Thomas and the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, copyright of the national flag has been transferred to the Commonwealth for $20 million. Prior to the agreement, anyone who wanted to use the flag legally had to pay a fee or ask permission. 

“We’ve freed the Aboriginal flag for Australians,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement on Tuesday. “Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away.”

The change of ownership now means that Australians can put the Aboriginal flag on clothing like sports jerseys and shirts, paint it on sports grounds, include it on websites and in paintings and use it in any medium without being charged.

In 2018, Thomas signed a deal that gave WAM Clothing, a non-indigenous company, exclusive rights to use the flag, physically and digitally. WAM has actively enforced those rights ever since, most notably in 2020 against the Australian Football League (AFL), which had been using the flag on various merchandise until WAM issued infringement notices.

A year earlier, Clothing The Gap – whose aim is to celebrate Aboriginal people and culture – launched the ‘Free the flag’ campaign, an initiative to change the flags licensing agreement, after WAM served them a “cease and desist” for using the flag on clothing that was being sold to raise funds for medical supplies.


In 2020, Gunditjmara woman and co-founder of the brand, Laura Thompson, created a petition that rallied 150,000 signatures in support of the Free the Flag movement.

Though Thomas has conceded copyright over the flag, he will still retain moral rights, with all future royalties that the Commonwealth receives from flag sales to be designated to future work with the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). 

Thomas also plans to use $2 million to establish an Australian Aboriginal Flag Legacy not-for-profit. In December of last year, he also created a non-fungible token (NFT) of the flag to commemorate its 50th year, stating that he would “hold the NFT on an ongoing basis, on behalf of Indigenous communities.”

While the general consensus to the change of copyright seems to be positive, some have suggested that politicians are using it to distract from other issues. First Nations artist Rachael Sarra wrote on instagram on Tuesday "[Prime Minister Scott Morrison] is diverting the narrative so come Jan 26 he can claim to be a hero and miss the whole point of why we protest every year.” 

The contentious public holiday of “Australia Day” on January 26, which for many marks the beginning of British colonisation and genocide of First Nations People, has for years been the subject of a growing campaign to change the date.


Others claimed the move doesn’t go far enough to meaningfully address the systemic issues affecting First Nations people in Australia. Gamilaroi man and founder of IndigenousX, Luke Pearson, said on Twitter that “if your Indigenous affairs highlights consist solely of changing a word in an anthem that nobody was asking for and giving the Aboriginal flag to ‘all Australians’ I probably wouldn’t be too boastful about it.” 

These opinions point to the long and arduous road that First Nations people have had to travel to gain recognition for their rights. From issues of healthcare, and Indigenous self-determination, to the numbers of First Nations people dying in police custody, the Commonwealth government still has a long way to go to create real equality and progress.

While the “freeing of the flag” may seem like a welcome step, the power of its use sits in the hands of all Australians, including non-Indigenous people. Though the Free the Flag movement can chalk up a victory, this just means that continued support of Indigenous businesses is vital.

Follow Julie Fenwick on Twitter and Instagram.

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