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Celebrations after victory in campaign to free the flag

Brunswick-based Clothing The Gaps led the national movement to release the Aboriginal flag design from restrictive copyright

“I think lots of people will be rejoicing today,” says Clothing The Gaps CEO Laura Thompson.

Mark Phillips
Tuesday, January 25, 2022

BRUNSWICK-based Clothing The Gaps is celebrating a major victory after the Federal Government intervened to allow the use of the Aboriginal flag without copyright restrictions.

The Sydney Road social enterprise and fashion label has led the campaign to ‘Free The Flag’ after it was legally blocked in 2019 from using the iconic image on its range of Indigenous themed clothing.

Clothing the Gaps CEO and Gunditjmara woman Laura Thompson said she was elated at the decision which will see the Federal Government pay the designer of the flag, Harold Thomas, $20 million for a perpetual copyright transfer that will allow the image to be freely used.

Until now, a very small number of businesses owned by non-Aboriginal people have had exclusive licences to produce clothing, flags or souvenirs with the original design. Anyone else has had to seek permission and/or pay a fee to use it.

“I think lots of people will be rejoicing today and celebrating that … it’s back in the hands of the Aboriginal community, and we can all feel that it belongs to us now,” Ms Thompson said.

Thomas designed the flag, which combines a dark sky with a red earth and a yellow sun, in 1970 and was recognised by the Federal Court as its sole creator in 1997. But the following year, the first of a series of exclusive licences with non-Aboriginal companies was granted.

In November 2018, an exclusive licencing agreement for the flag on clothing was signed with WAM Clothing. In May the following year, Clothing The Gaps began making Aboriginal flag products, leading to it being issued with a cease and desist order from WAM Clothing.

Clothing The Gaps wasted no time trumpeting the decision on Tuesday morning, hiring a signwriter to add a ‘D’ to the large slogan painted on the side of its building so it now reads ‘Freed The Flag’. Ms Thompson also customised a t-shirt with the same message.

Also joining the celebrations on Tuesday was Ged Kearney, the MHR for the federal seat of Cooper, named after Aboriginal leader William Cooper, and a local Brunswick resident. Ms Kearney tabled a petition in Parliament in July 2019 in support of the campaign to free the flag.

Ms Thompson said it had been a long struggle to release the flag design from exclusive copyright.

“We’ve had a lot of community support and a lot of people power pushing this campaign.”

“The flag has united Aboriginal people across the country: you’ll see it at protests at times of struggle, but you will also see it in times of celebration, and when people are mourning.

“The impact of colonisation has been so great on this country, but we’ve got our flag and it connects us to to our people, and our community, our culture.

“It’s actually been really sad, to be honest, for the last two and half years as the campaign continued to drag out, about the lack of visibility of the Aboriginal flag in the community.

“We thought we’d free it quicker, especially when we had all the support from the politicians but we just didn’t get there. And now we have.”

The Free The Flag campaign used social media and recruited powerful allies, including AFL clubs and prominent Indigenous footballers like Eddie Betts, along the way gathering more than 165,000 signatures for an online petition.

“It’s been a long journey of public advocacy, but we haven’t done it alone,” Ms Thompson said.

“We’ve had a lot of community support and a lot of people power pushing this campaign. And I feel like this is an issue that all Australians could understand, like, it’s not fair that Aboriginal peoples don’t have free access to the flag.

“We’ve been discriminated enough, we’ve got enough struggles. And one would assume that fighting for equal rights to a symbol, and an official flag of this country was not one of them.”

The symbolism of the announcement of the copyright deal one day before January 26, a day of mourning for First Nations people, was not lost on Ms Thompson. But she said the joy at the news about the flag would not overshadow the ongoing meaning of January 26, which most Aboriginal people associate with invasion and genocide.

Ms Thompson said non-Aboriginal Australians could show their solidarity for First Nations peoples on January 26 by recognising that it is not a date to celebrate.

“Just being aware that for Aboriginal people, this is a day of mourning, and just to be conscious of how you choose to spend your day in a way that is such respectful and reflective,” she said.

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