'Opportunistic parasites': Furore over company's claims on Aboriginal flag

An angry battle has erupted over the use of the Aboriginal flag which has indigenous groups in Australia up in arms.

A non-Indigenous company holds the exclusive copyright licence to the use of the red, black and yellow flag on clothing and has been working to prevent other organisations, including those run by Aboriginal community members, from using it.

The artist behind the flag’s design, Harold Thomas, has issued a copyright licence to Queensland-based company WAM Clothing.

Founded in 2018, the company was established with a view to make “an authentic range” of clothing featuring the Aboriginal flag design, its website says.

But its founders have come under fire for their actions after it sent a letter to a Victorian Aboriginal health organisation called Spark Health, asking it to "cease and desist" from featuring the Aboriginal flag on clothing it makes.

Sporting codes dragged into controversy

It has also sent notices to the AFL and the NRL for using the flag on jerseys printed for indigenous rounds in recent weeks, the ABC reported.

The report said the NRL had confirmed they had received the notices, but had not made any public comment about them.

The AFL have not offered an official response.

WAM clothing issued a statement saying it is “in discussions with the NRL, AFL and other organisations regarding the use of the Aboriginal flag on clothing.”

‘Aboriginal flag should belong to everyone’

The dispute has sparked outrage from Aboriginal groups, who say the iconic flag should belong to everyone.

Sianna Catullo is the chief creative officer at Spark Health and a Narungga woman. She said the group sought permission from Mr Thomas to use the flag on multiple occasions but never heard back.

“We made training singlets, we’ve made T-shirts and we’ve made other jumpers with the flag on it,” she told ABC radio.

“We sort of knew we were probably going to get in trouble for this eventually,” she admitted. “We just never thought the person we would be getting in trouble by is a non-aboriginal business that hasn’t got any connection to the community.”

The group uses the money it makes from its merchandise brand, Clothing The Gap, to support programs in Aboriginal Communities.

Appearing on The Project this week, co-owner of the company, Laura Thompson, said she would like to see the government buy the copyright licence and make it available to everyone.

“I don’t think a lot of the community knew the flag had been copyrighted and that’s why there’s been such an outcry I think,” she said.

The artist Harold Thomas (left) who created the design in 1971 was granted copyright ownership by a federal court in 1997. Source: AAP

Petition launched against WAM Clothing

A Change.org petition calling to alter the licensing agreement around the Aboriginal flag has collected more than 25,000 signatures online since being posted on the weekend.

“We believe that this control of the market by a non-indigenous business has to stop,” the petition states.

One signatory commented that “Harold Thomas is certainly due recognition and benefit for his design” but criticised WAM Clothing’s conduct as “nothing more than opportunistic parasites”.

WAM Clothing has done nothing wrong, and paid Mr Thomas - who created the image in 1971 and was officially recognised as the copyright owner in 1997 - for its exclusive worldwide use.

But the situation has caused heated debate online with many lamenting the fact the artist has chosen to use the flag as a source of income.

“If he had made it public domain or even free for indigenous people to use, this wouldn't be an issue,” wrote one user.

“Such a beautiful flag that so many people have rallied behind now being twisted purely to maintain an income stream,” said another.

Yahoo News Australia has contacted WAM Clothing for comment.

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