Home Artwork Copyright law ‘unfairly’ impacts Indigenous artist families as lawyers push for change

Copyright law ‘unfairly’ impacts Indigenous artist families as lawyers push for change


When Albert Namatjira’s family reclaimed the rights to the world-renowned watercolourist’s work in 2017, it was a momentous day for his descendants.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains an image of a deceased person.

But the historic return of copyright for Namatjira’s work after a decades-long struggle came with a caveat: it would expire 12 years later.

A submission to the Productivity Commission has renewed the push to reform the Copyright Act so that the rights to the work of the Indigenous artist stay forever in the family.

In its brief, law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler argues that the 70-year limitation on copyright protection after an artist’s death “unfairly affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.”

An untitled work by Albert Namatjira from 1955.

Born and raised in the remote Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, southwest of Alice Springs, Namatjira learned the art of watercolor while visiting European artist Rex Battarbee and encouraged by the local pastor.

He created thousands of iconic works of art during his lifetime depicting the Central Australian landscape, which has seen a surge in demand in recent years.

Namatjira’s copyrights sold in 1983

The public administrator of the Northern Territory government sold the copyright of Namatjira to Legend Press in 1983, ending the income stream for the painter’s family – a move the then administrator later acknowledged. late as erroneous.

Black and white photo of Albert Namatjira sitting in the backcountry
Albert Namatjira photographed by Jim Gallacher in Areyonga in 1950.(Provided: Northern Territory Library)

Lawyers for Arnold Bloch Leibler helped the Namatjira family with the 2017 settlement and have now urged the federal government to expand copyright as part of its inquiry into Indigenous visual arts and crafts.

“Due to the illicit sale of the copyright… the Namatjira family has been denied ownership or control of the copyright for a period of more than 30 years, almost half of the legal term of the copyright,” their memoir reads.

“This happened despite the express wish contained in Albert Namatjira’s will that his property be passed on to his wife and children.

“In the longer term, this reform should extend to the works of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who are identified as having suffered unjust consequences in the same way due to the limitation of the period of protection of the right author.”

Hurry up

The Namatjira Legacy Trust (NLT) was established to preserve the pioneer painter’s artistic legacy and for the benefit of the community of Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory – where Albert Namatjira was a traditional guardian.

Three women stand in the backcountry
Albert Namatjira’s granddaughters Betty Wheeler (left) and Gloria Pannka with Sophia Marinos [centre].(ABC News: Shuba Krishnan)

NLT chairwoman Sophia Marinos said time was running out for the family to unlock the full value of the copyright asset.

“There is hardly any time left for family and future generations to be able to reap the benefits for their community,” she said.

“I think there is now a huge opportunity for this new government, in the context of the Uluru declaration of heart and [plans for a First Nations] Voice in Parliament.

“Now is a good time to send a strong message about reconciliation and to work with Indigenous peoples, and artists in particular, on the appropriate and respectful treatment of cultural property.”

A “special” inspiration

Selma Coulthard grew up in Tempe Downs and Hermannsburg, where she developed a love of art after seeing the work of Namatjira and her brothers.

A woman sits next to her watercolor painting in progress
Selma Coulthard has been inspired by Namatjira and has been painting for over 30 years.(ABC News: Lee Robinson)

She is now an accomplished artist in her own right at the Iltja Ntjarra School of Art in Alice Springs and reflects fondly on the craft of pioneering painting.

“His works were special to the whole Aboriginal tribe because he painted what he saw and what he sang,” Ms Coulthard said.

“His way of life was to watch the stories his ancestors told him, and he did his [work] show his sons and grandchildren the same stories through his painting.”

The final report of the Productivity Commission on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Arts and Crafts is expected to be completed in November 2022 and made public shortly thereafter.