Free the Flag

The Australian Aboriginal Flag was designed by artist Harold Thomas, a Luritja man and was first flown at Victoria Square in Adelaide, SA, on National Aborigines Day, 12 July 1971. The flag symbolises the strength, resistance and resilience of Aboriginal people, particularly for the modern land rights movement.

It became the official flag for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra after it was first flown there in 1972. The flag was used at rallies and in imagery on posters, t-shirts and Aboriginal organisation logos from then on.

It has since become a widely recognised symbol of the unity and identity of Aboriginal people.In view of the flag’s wide acceptance and importance in Australian society, the Commonwealth took steps in 1994 to give the flag legal recognition. After a period of public consultation, the Aboriginal flag was proclaimed a ‘Flag of Australia’ under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953 in July 1995.

When it was adopted as the flag of the Aboriginal people of Australia by proclamation of the Governor-General on July 14, 1995, several other claimants came forward asserting that they were the artist behind it. However, Thomas was successful in establishing his claim to authorship before the Federal Court in 1997.

Copyright and what this means for the Aboriginal flag

Today, The Australian Aboriginal Flag is protected under copyright and may be reproduced only in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Act 1968 or with the permission of Harold Thomas.

This means the flag is protected under the Copyright Act and can only be reproduced in accordance with that law, or by permission of Thomas. Thomas has made arrangements with several companies over time.


The big issue

In 2018, WAM Clothing, a non-Indigenous company, was granted 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.

Clothing The Gap, is 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.


What is 'Free the Flag'?

About the campaign

The year 2021, is a special year for all Indigenous peoples of Australia as it marks 50 years since the inception of the Aboriginal Flag. Communities and people across the country are coming together to help ‘Free the Flag’.

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.

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.

Australians have been crying out to the government to help them secure the rights to the Aboriginal flag. Following this outcry, Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt is now in talks to securing those rights.

Why ‘Free the Flag’?

The Australian flag, doesn’t require permission for use as long as it is according to the  guidelines respecting its use. Sadly, this is not the case for the Aboriginal flag. The reason for this is because the Aboriginal flag is a copyright work owned by the artist Harold Thomas who created it over 40 years ago.

“It’s not just any flag, it’s a flag born of struggle and the one uniting symbol for all Aboriginal peoples across this country. It’s something First Nations people feel deep ownership of and reverence to and I hope that everyone involved in this discussion can see that.”

Can the flag be ‘freed’?

Assuming the agreement with WAM can be adjusted or dissolved, the flag’s creator Harold Thomas could proclaim that he does not intend to enforce his Copyright and the flag is free to use. There are a number of lobby groups pushing to "free the flag" for the obviously desirable end that all First Nations peoples and communities can use the flag whenever they want without cost or the need for consent.

It's an unusual situation, because the flag's design is private property but has, by its popularity, become understood as a national icon. The federal government can fix the "problem" by extinguishing Thomas' rights, but would have to pay him fair compensation (the constitution requires this). That could be a very high price.

Get involved

Clothing The Gap has listed the many ways you can show support:

1. Sign the #PrideNotProfit Petition

2. Write to your local Member of Parliament

3. Rep some Free the Flag merch

4. Raise awareness and have these conversations

  • Raise awareness and have conversations about the Aboriginal Flag and the impact of the copyright.

5. Donate to the GoFund Me

  • The 'Free The Flag - Fighting Fund' will be used to assist the Free The Flag Campaign with resources to continue the fight to free the Aboriginal Flag.
  • If you would like to publicly fundraise on our behalf please reach out first.
  • Go Fund Me

6. Use the Free the Flag logo

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Timeline of key events