• Aboriginal artist Lynette Corby paints a bush tucker scene on the banks of the Todd River in Alice Springs. (AAP)Source: AAP
Is Australian law doing enough to stop companies profiting off the sale of fake Indigenous arts and crafts?
James Elton-Pym

22 Aug 2016 - 5:51 PM  UPDATED 22 Aug 2016 - 5:51 PM

Dale Tilbrook does not let her customers take photos inside her Aboriginal art gallery.

She also knows Indigenous artists who have stopped sending fabric designs overseas for printing, after they discovered their work was being reproduced without permission.

‘Aboriginal-style’ craft goods produced in countries like China and Indonesia are ubiquitous in Australia’s souvenir shops. Indigenous artists have complained that these knockoffs damage their livelihoods, and demonstrate a lack of respect for the cultural traditions that inspire them.

 “If it’s made in China, I’m not interested,” Dale Tilbrook tells NITV News.

Ms Tilbrook, a Wardandi woman who has run her gallery in Swan River, WA for 17 years, refuses to stock Aboriginal-style goods made overseas.

 “It really just pains me to see a boomerang or a didgeridoo . . . you know those Bali didgeridoos made out of bamboo? It’s cringe-worthy. It doesn’t have anything to do with our culture,” she says.

The Arts Law Centre of Australia has launched a campaign calling for the consumer watchdog, the ACCC, to take decisive action against companies selling and importing fake Indigenous arts and crafts, on the grounds of misleading and deceptive conduct. At the same time, an online petition for a ban on the import of such goods has attracted more than 10,000 signatures on Change.org.

The centre is also recommending tougher laws that would ban the sale of Indigenous craft goods unless they have been made by Indigenous people.

ACCC prosecutions can be successful. In 2009, the watchdog won a case against a company called Australian Dreamtime Creations for advertising ‘authentic’ Aboriginal works that were not actually made by Aboriginal people.

Asked whether successful prosecutions were rare, an ACCC spokesman told NITV News of several wins in 2008, 2009 and 2012. The ACCC has also published advice for consumers buying Aboriginal-style crafts, which includes recommendations like reading the label carefully and asking the name of the artist.

The Change.org petition urging a ban on Aboriginal art imports was started by Melbourne-based musician Myvanwy Moar. She is not Indigenous herself, but says the proliferation of faux-Aboriginal goods in her city has “annoyed [her] for a long time”.  

“There’s a lot at the Victoria Markets. Down Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street, all the souvenir shops have boomerangs or a bag with a pattern on it that is supposed to look Aboriginal,” she says.

Indigenous artists can take civil action against those directly copying their work, like any artist can.

But for most, the barriers to a victory in court are too high to bother.

“The cost of running litigation is more than the return would be,” explains Terri Janke, a Sydney lawyer specialising in Indigenous intellectual property.

“They don’t want to spend ten, twenty thousand dollars running a case because they can’t afford it.”

But with Indigenous art, the price of litigation is not the only obstacle. Rock art and dot paintings can be stylised and reproduced in slightly different ways, skirting the regulations. Indigenous artists will often borrow from ancient, heritage symbols in their own work – patterns that are far too old to be covered by conventional copyright law, which only applies for 70 years after the death of the artist.   

Ms Janke, whose law firm is Indigenous-owned, says customers might make better decisions about the Aboriginal products they buy if labeling laws were tightened.

Products will sometimes be packaged with a blurb about Aboriginal art and culture, while the ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Bali’ tag is buried in the fine print.

“I would think as a consumer, tourists would be interested to know that they’re being taken advantage of, and sold fake art at the expense of an Indigenous artist making an authentic sale,” Ms Janke says.

Ms Tilbrook, who runs the Aboriginal art gallery, agrees.

She would like to see an accreditation scheme like the Made in Australia kangaroo symbol rolled out for authentic Indigenous-made goods.

“People don’t know that everything’s made in China . . . often [they] will buy it and won’t find out until later,” she says.

Ms Tilbrook says she knows not every shop has taken her principled stand. “Maybe we could have made a bit more money if we had taken a different route,” she says. “But we’re quite happy with what we’re doing . . . we’ve built our reputation on not having Made-in-China goods in our shop.”

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