Non-indigenous company profiting from Aboriginal flag sparks controversy

By Kelvin McDonald
Indigenous business Spark Health Australia is using the dollar sign and hashtag "Pride Not Profit" to provoke discussion about a non-Indigenous company's exclusive use of the Aboriginal flag on clothing. 

A dollar sign smack-bang in the centre of a look-alike Aboriginal flag sums up the mood of indigenous Australians frustrated that a non-indigenous company is profiting from a flag that has become a much-loved symbol of Aboriginal identity.

The controversial image appears on an online petition started by indigenous business Spark Health Australia, who received a cease-and-desist letter from non-indigenous business WAM Clothing demanding the company stop using the Aboriginal flag on its Closing The Gap range of clothes. 

The indigenous business sells merchandise featuring the flag to fund health and education programmes in Aboriginal communities.

Indigenous business Spark Health Australia has started an online petition protesting a non-indigenous company's "monopoly" over the Aboriginal flag.  Photo/Spark Health Australia.

Last year, Queensland-based WAM Clothing secured the exclusive worldwide rights to produce clothing featuring the Aboriginal flag from Luritja artist Harold Thomas, who designed the flag in 1971. 

Last week, the company began flexing its legal muscle, issuing businesses with copyright infringement notices.

"We have until midnight to sell the rest of our flag merch!  Get your last Aboriginal owned and made merchandise!!!," read a Clothing The Gap social media post published on Wednesday. 

Among the organisations that have received the legal warning are sporting bodies such as the NRL, AFL and Cricket Australia, but also indigenous businesses clearly unhappy that a non-indigenous company is blocking them from using a treasured symbol of Aboriginal identity and a flag many indigenous people have come to think of as their own.

Clothing The Gap, which has now sold the last of their flag merchandise, told followers, "This was never about us. We want to raise awareness about who owns the Aboriginal flag and the current licensing arrangements." Source/Instagram. 

"Should WAM Clothing, a non-indigenous business, hold the monopoly in a market to profit off Aboriginal peoples' identity and love for 'their' flag?" says the Spark Health petition.

The small Victoria-based "profit for purpose" business says, "We believe that this control of the market by a non-indigenous business has to stop. Viable channels for new licensing agreements, especially those for Aboriginal organisations and businesses, must be created.  Unite with us to see the Aboriginal Flag celebrated, shared and worn for #PrideNotProfit as we lobby government and relevant bodies for action."

Almost 36,000 people have signed the petition since it was created last Friday, surpassing the company's original target of 35,000 and leading Spark Health to set a fresh goal of 50,000 signatories.

Laura Thompson is manager of Spark Health Australia.  Source/Instagram.

On its website, WAM Clothing says it's "proud to be chosen" as the exclusive licensee for a range of clothing bearing the Aboriginal flag design and points out that "Harold Thomas is paid royalties for every piece of clothing we sell".

In a statement, the company maintains Thomas had not been receiving acknowledgement or royalties until they came on board. 

"Until WAM Clothing took on the licence for clothing with Harold Thomas, Harold was not receiving recognition from the majority of parties both here and overseas, who were producing a huge amount of items of clothing bearing the Aboriginal flag. We’re pleased that Harold is now starting to receive his rightful recognition and subsequently royalties for his copyright."

The non-indigenous company is at pains to say it's "presently working with 100% Aboriginal owned manufacturers" and other Australian producers employing indigenous workers, and is committed to sharing a portion of its profits with indigenous communities.  It says it's also working with Aboriginal-owned organisations to provide options for them to sell their own clothing ranges bearing the flag. 

Thomas says it's entirely up to him who he approves to use the flag design and there's no way he can please everybody. 

"The Aboriginal flag is doing its job as it was intended to do, to bring unity and pride to all aboriginals.  At times we get the few who snigger and are disenchanted.  I can’t satisfy all black people who wish to break up the Aboriginal unification," Thomas says in a statement released by WAM Clothing.

"I can choose who I like to have a licence agreement to manufacture and sell goods which have the Aboriginal flag on it.  It’s taken many years to find the appropriate Australian company that respects and honours the Aboriginal flag meaning and copyright and that is WAM Clothing."

However, there are signs of past lack of respect for Aboriginal art by one of the people associated with WAM Clothing.

The company's part-owner, Ben Wooster, is a former owner of Birubi Art, a wholesale company (now in liquidation) which sold 18,000 souvenir products to retail outlets across Australia over a more than two year period. In October last year, Birubi Art was convicted under the country's consumer protection laws of selling fake Aboriginal art, made in Indonesia.

"These products, despite featuring designs associated with Australian Aboriginal art and words such as ‘Aboriginal Art’, ‘genuine’, and ‘Australia’, were made in Indonesia," the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said.

"The artwork, images and statements used by Birubi suggested a relationship between Australian Aboriginal people and the production of the products which did not exist.”

Indigenous artist Elizabeth Close is adding her artistic voice to the 'Pride Not Profit' cause, posting "Standing in Solidarity with Aboriginal organisations such as @clothingthegap and @sparkhealthaus."  Source/Instagram. 

In developments this week, it has been suggested that the Australian government could potentially acquire the rights to the Aboriginal flag compulsorily, on the basis that the flag is now "a national symbol" that all Australians should be free to use. This suggestion has, however, been met with a warning that such a move could be seen as a further example of government appropriation of Aboriginal property.

Thomas allows free use of the flag design for non-commercial purposes such as health and education.

In Aotearoa, Hiraina Marsden, Jan Dobson and Linda Munn are credited with creating the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, however, many people are said to have been behind it.