Pablo Escobar said, “everyone has a price, the important thing is to find out what it is”. Ben Wooster and Semele Moore, of newly founded WAM Clothing, asked the question of Aboriginal Flag designer Uncle Harold Thomas. The result was the non-Indigenous duo receiving a worldwide exclusive licence for the Aboriginal Flag on clothing.
So how could this happen? Simple – In Australia, when you express a creation in material form, you become the copyright owner – it’s automatic. However, you should keep proof just in case someone tries to steal your design or challenge your copyright. In 1997 Uncle Harold won his copyright in federal court, despite two challengers. As the copyright owner, Uncle Harold can licence his Intellectual Property to whomever he chooses.
There are 3 types of Intellectual Property (IP) licenses which are – Exclusive Licence, Non-Exclusive Licence, and Sole Licence. WAM Clothing are taking their exclusive licence very seriously. They’ve already sent out several cease-and-desist notices to Indigenous businesses and are having words with the NRL and AFL about their use of the design. WAM must have at least one product restriction on their licence, as the actual flag is still being produced by Carroll and Richardson Flagworld pty. ltd.
The decimation of Australia’s First Nations people has led to a decimation of culture and a loss of identity for many. We now seek a treaty and recognition for what our people have been and continue to go through and furthermore, we want our identity back. Given that Aboriginal people have been taken from their own nations and spread across the land like an old woman throwing scraps to a bird out her back doorstep, it’s only natural that we’ve symbolised the flag. The design represents all Aboriginal people, it gives us a voice within western culture, an identity, and we want to wear it with pride. Since its creation, the flag has been a constant inclusion in protests and thanks to Cathy Freeman, it attended the Sydney Olympics, although it drew every racist for miles out of the woodwork. It is a symbol that has been taken all over the world by Indigenous athletes but with the licensing of it to a non-Indigenous company, that symbol has been severely tarnished.
To add insult to injury, Ben Wooster’s previous business, the now-defunct Birubi Arts, was found guilty by the ACCC of misleading consumers. Wooster’s caper was importing Indigenous-style gifts and selling them as genuine Aboriginal arts. This is extremely unethical and according to Lorena Allam at The Guardian, the ACCC is seeking a 2-2.5m penalty because of their consumer law breach. A quick look around for Birubi online also showed me another site they are featured on where they are selling racist bumper stickers to rednecks. WAM have made a lot of noise in the last week or so about their respect for Aboriginal people, art and culture, but apparently not enough to be above selling racist shit to racists and profiteering off art and culture at the same time.
When Uncle Harold first gave these licences to non-Indigenous companies some 20 years ago, there might not have been a lot of Indigenous companies in the running to take on such a big job but nowadays there would be any number of Indigenous companies who I’m sure would have put their hand up (and some have) given the opportunity. That said, as the artist behind the flag he can do whatever he wants with his IP and the licences around it so it’s not for me to say what he should or shouldn’t do with it. But as an Aboriginal person and a consumer, I do get to decide where and how I spend my money and what is most frustrating in all of this is the uneasy conundrum I am now faced with if I want to buy something as simple as a shirt with an Aboriginal flag on it.
I’d love to give money to Uncle Harold with such a purchase, and feel it is right to do so, but I’m not willing to put money in the hands of a non-Indigenous person with a track record of working unethically by selling fake Aboriginal art, someone who has no problem selling the same racist propaganda that I cringe at every time I see a racist bumper sticker on the back of some racist’s ute.
One thing is for sure, it really is a twisted situation. On one hand, there is a symbol that is representative of an entire people, a symbol that became a national flag and gave those people a glimmer of hope, of acceptance in a new western world. One that has been used to strengthen causes and protests for over 40 years. Then on the other, that symbol is a copyrighted design licensed to a business, whose co-owner has had a direct part in taking advantage of those people and that is a bitter pill to swallow.
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