Protecting artists’ copyrights

The House of Aboriginality helped transform attitudes to Aboriginal art

The case became known as the ‘Mabo of Aboriginal Art’ with far-reaching consequences for Aboriginal artists. The expert witness was Professor Vivien Johnson, a writer and sociologist who had been researching Aboriginal art since the late 1970s. 

Also known as the ‘Aboriginal Carpets Case’ (1994), Milpurruru et al. vs Indofurn P/L established that Indigenous artists had the right to protection under Australian copyright law for their contemporary art works. The court also recognised the concept of ‘cultural harm’ when works are copied, given their significance within the artists’ own societies. 

As an expert witness, Professor Johnson supported the Indigenous artist plaintiffs who brought the case and provided important evidence regarding the artistic and cultural significance of Indigenous works that had been copied onto carpets. The case became a defining moment in the history of Australian Aboriginal art, helping the wider society to understand the rights of Aboriginal artists under Australian law. 

“People used to say that if you’re using Aboriginal designs, you have to change it by 30 per cent so ‘they can’t get you’ – can’t come after you for copyright infringement,” she explains. “There’s been a huge change in attitude, where people no longer try to push the envelope: they now see Aboriginal artists as people who are entitled to protection for their work.” 

The House of Aboriginality, developed by Professor Johnson together with her students at Macquarie, played a key role in promoting and reinforcing this change. The project grew out of her advocacy work during the court case, and a dedicated course on ‘Aboriginality’ at Macquarie. The course was the first in Australia to identify and investigate copyright infringements involving Aboriginal art. 

“The students were engaged as ‘copyright detectives’, they searched domestic marketplaces for objects with Aboriginal designs on them and looked for copyright infringements,” explains Professor Johnson. 

“It was a significant development. People now understand that Aboriginal culture belongs to Aboriginal people but they didn’t back then. There’s been a big change in people’s understanding.” 

The detective work, undertaken by Professor Johnson’s students, culminated in an extensive collection of tea towels, coffee mugs and all manner of other products, supported by research to trace the derivation of individual designs. Education, in the wider community, was also a priority.  

The House of Aboriginality CD-ROM and website raised awareness in schools and among the general public. In 1995 and 1996, Professor Johnson also curated a national touring exhibition entitled, ‘Copyrites: Aboriginal Art in the Age of Reproductive Technologies’. The outcome was a shift in attitude that is still in evidence today. Copyright infringements of Aboriginal art have virtually disappeared from the marketplace. 

“Aboriginal artists have taken the people who infringed their copyright to court and they have won,” says Professor Johnson. “They’ve received not only monetary damages, they’ve also received recognition that this kind of treatment of traditional Aboriginal designs does cultural harm.” 

“It’s about awareness. Making people aware that every time they pick up a coffee cup or wipe the dishes with a tea towel that has an Aboriginal design, to think about its significance to Aboriginal people.”

View Professor Vivien Johnson's profile

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