• Bernard Namok Jr, whose father designed the Torres Strait Islander Flag in 1992. (NITV)Source: NITV
Controversy around a copyright-use agreement over the Aboriginal flag has raised issues with the Torres Strait Islander Flag.
Greg Dunlop

26 Jun 2019 - 2:38 PM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2019 - 2:38 PM

The mayor of the Torres Strait Islands said there should be “sufficient education” about who can reproduce the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags

Bernard Namok designed the winning entry submitted in a competition for the Torres Strait Islander flag in 1992, and died one year later.

Copyright of the flag rests with the Torres Strait Island Regional Council which does not seek reimbursement for overseeing the flag’s use and reproduction.

Fred Gela, the mayor of the Torres Strait Island Regional Council, said the flag was “deeply symbolic” and should never be used for commercial gain.

“It is a visual representation of the identity that runs through our blood,” he told NITV News.

“Like the Aboriginal flag, we have also had incidences of inappropriate usage of the Torres Strait Islander flag, which is why, by virtue of respect and since our flag’s inception, we have held a process that acknowledges the late Bernard Namok and protects the intention behind his design.”

However, the son of the artist who designed the flag says his family should control its copyright.

“My personal opinion is if you create something then that belongs to you, the artwork belongs to you,” Bernard Namok Jr told the Koori Mail newspaper earlier this month.

“It still isn’t clear to me who really should own the copyright to the flag.”

The comments follow recent calls to find a resolution to the copyright and licensing issues surrounding the Aboriginal flag.

An investigation prompted by the Koori Mail story revealed a series of Indigenous companies had been served cease-and-desist notices for use of the Aboriginal flag on clothing.

The notices were sent by non-Indigenous company WAM Clothing, which holds exclusive rights to the flag's image.

The company is partly owned by Ben Wooster who was previously the sole owner of Birbui Art, a now-defunct company which was today fined $2.3 million for selling fake Aboriginal art.

Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians, said last week that he was “hopeful” about finding a solution the copyright and licensing issues.

“The Aboriginal flag is a strong symbol for Aboriginal Australians and is respected by many non-Aboriginal Australians,” he said in a statement.

“My hope is to find a way to respect the rights of the flag’s creator and for the flag to continue to play a unifying role.”

His Labor Party counterpart, Linda Burney, has an Aboriginal flag tattoo on her left arm and said in a video posted to social media it has "enormous meaning and symbolism" to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“The controversy around it at the moment are difficult and often legalistic issues,” she said.

“I hope that we can find a resolution to the present issue.”

Copyright for the Aboriginal flag belongs to Harold Thomas who designed it in 1971.

“I’ve always had copyright. This is the case for any artist who creates an image,” he told CAAMA Radio on Monday.

The Luritja artist said that recent criticism about how he has licensed the flag was based on “misinformation” and “lies”.

He added that what was special about the flag was that it was a unifying symbol.

“What’s special about this flag is that it’s a flag about identity,” he said.

“The flag will be 50 years [old] in a couple of years,” he said.

“What good it has done during that [time] is immeasurable. People have passed on and placed it over the coffin."

“There’s a bigger picture here.”

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