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Namatjira story demonstrates case for copyright reform

Intellectual Property, Native Title & Public Interest Law
Finke Gorge National Park Northern Territory

An article published in today’s The Australian covers a submission by Arnold Bloch Leibler to the Productivity Commission, recommending “sweeping legal reform” that would give the family of revered painter Albert Namatjira perpetual copyright in his lifetime works.

Journalist Rosemary Neill writes that having helped secure the return of Albert Namatjira’s copyright to his children and grandchildren in a historic 2017 deal, Arnold Bloch Leibler has told the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Arts and Crafts that the Copyright Act unfairly impacts Indigenous artists, who often live in impoverished communities with little education about copyright law.

“The submission urged that the Act’s 70-year limit on copyright protection after an artist’s death be extended for such artists and their descendants, starting with Namatjira, whose family was denied ownership or control of the pioneering painter’s copyright for more than three decades,” the article explains.

“Widely recognised as the founder of the Aboriginal art movement, Namatjira died in 1959, meaning that copyright on his works is due to expire in 2029. However, his family had no say over reproductions of his famous paintings in books, posters, exhibition catalogues and news and film footage for 34 years after the Territory Government sold it to the small, white-owned company Legend Press in 1983, without the family’s knowledge.”

The 2017 copyright handback was reported around the world. Today, Namatjira’s copyright is controlled by the non-profit Namatjira Legacy Trust, which looks after the interests of the painter’s descendants, most of whom live in Alice Springs and surrounding communities.

But under current law, in 2029, “the Namatjira copyright will enter the public domain” and “one of Australia’s most valuable cultural assets would be open to reproduction by any person”, including “disrespectful use of this valuable artwork”.

The article goes onto explain that, as part of the firm’s pro bono work, Arnold Bloch Leibler brokered a landmark compensation deal between the Territory Government and Namatjira’s descendants in 2018.

To read the full article, click here.

To read ABL’s submission to the Productivity Commission, prepared by senior partner Mark Leibler, competition and IP partner Zaven Mardirossian and lawyer Laura Susa, click here.

ABL's submission to the Productivity Commission inquiry was also covered by the ABC here. See ABC's video coverage here

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