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Open letter: leading Indigenous artists reject copyright law changes

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Jessica Mauboy, Wayne Blair, Dan Sultan, Leah Purcell, Richard Bell and Rachael Maza are amongst the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creative talents to add their name to an Open Letter rejecting the Productivity Commission’s proposed changes to copyright laws.

In a report, released just before Christmas, the Productivity Commission recommended sweeping changes to Australia’s Intellectual Property laws including: scrapping Parallel Import Restrictions on books, a significant reduction in the period for which copyright applies to creative works, and the introduction of a “fair use” exception for copyright infringement.

The Productivity Commission says that our copyright laws are “skewed too far in favour of copyright owners to the detriment of consumers and intermediate users.”

But the Open Letter, released by the Copyright Agency, says the recommendations would “harm the ability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander film and television makers, writers, artists, musicians and journalists to tell Indigenous stories and make a living.”

See the full open letter and its signatories below:


We the undersigned unanimously reject the Productivity Commission’s Recommendations on copyright in Australia. The recommendations to change copyright protections will harm the ability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander film and television makers, writers, artists, musicians and journalists to tell Indigenous stories and make a living.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and creators have a right to receive fair payment for their work. The changes to Australian copyright laws being pushed by the Productivity Commission, large organisations and big technology companies will greatly diminish these protections.

This is not just unfair, it is a threat to the artistic mob and means it may be even harder to make a living for the next generation of artists. Our kids should be able to grow up inspired by artists like Albert Namatjira and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, listening to music from artists like Dan Sultan and Jessica Mauboy and watching movies like Bran Nue Dae and Samson and Delilah and TV shows like Black Comedy and Basically Black and reading books like Shake a Leg and My Place.

Ownership, responsibility and control by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of their cultural heritage is paramount. The suggested changes will have a detrimental impact on the stories, imagery, knowledge and heritage which is embodied in our story-telling and artistic works.

Ownership is also a way of economic empowerment for those artists who earn money from selling, reselling and reproducing their works.

We call on the Australian Government and parliament to rule out these proposed changes from the Productivity Commission.


•        Vernon Ah Kee (Artist)
•        Jada Alberts (Actor, Writer,Director)
•        Dave Arden (Musician)
•        Bronwyn Bancroft (Artist, Fashion Designer and Copyright Agency Board Member)
•        Bibi Barba (Artist)
•        William Baron (Performer, Composer)
•        Larissa Behrendt (Filmmaker, Academic)
•        Richard Bell (Artist)
•        Kevin Bennett (Musician)
•        Rachel Bin Salleh (Publisher)
•        Mervyn Bishop (Filmmaker)
•        Wayne Blair (Filmmaker, Director, Actor)
•        Brendon Boney (Singer, Songwriter)
•        Adam Briggs (Musician, Writer and Actor)
•        Troy Cassar-Daley (Musician)
•        Beck Cole (Director and Screenwriter)
•        Brenda Croft (Curator, Academic)
•        Julie Dowling (Artist)
•        Leah Flanagan (Singer,Songwriter)
•        Julie Gough (Artist, Writer and Curator)
•        Aroha Groves (Artist, Designer)
•        Anita Heiss (Author, Presenter and Commentator)
•        Rarriwuy Hicks (Actor)
•        Terri Janke (Copyright Lawyer)
•        Melissa Lucashenko (Writer)
•        Jessica Mauboy (Singer, songwriter, Actress)
•        Rachael Maza (Artistic Director, Actor, Narrator)
•        Philip McLaren (Author,Academic)
•        Sally Morgan (Author, Dramatist)
•        Hunter Page-Lochard (Actor)
•        Bruce Pascoe (Writer, Teacher,Historian)
•        Sandra Phillips (Academic, Chair of the First Nations Australia Writers’ Network (FNAWN) and Chair of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Indigenous Story)
•        Leah Purcell (Actor, Director, Writer)
•        Kim Scott (Novelist, Writer)
•        Shari Sebbens (Actor)
•        Bjorn Stewart (Actor, Writer)
•        Dan Sultan (Singer, Songwriter)
•        Jared Thomas (Author, Playwright, Poet, Academic)
•        Gina Williams (Singer, Songwriter)
•        Tara June Winch (Writer)
•        Jason Wing (Artist)


•        AACHWA (Peak body for Aboriginal Art Centres across Western Australia)
•        Boomalli (Aboriginal Artists Co-operative representing 50 artists)
•        Desart (representing over 40 Central Australian Aboriginal Art Centres)
•        Indigenous Art Centre Alliance (Representing 13 arts centres across far north Queensland)
•        Koori Heritage Trust
•        Moogahlin Performing Arts Incorporated

14 responses to “Open letter: leading Indigenous artists reject copyright law changes

  1. It is good to see our Aboriginal brothers and sisters united in this one cause as one mob, the arts is a major source of income for our people as with sports – this is where our natural talent field comes from.

  2. To play devil’s advocate, the Open Letter is a bit of a straw man that doesn’t really engage with the specific issues. No reasonable person, not even the Productivity Commission, would disagree with the general point that Indigenous and other artists should be able to control how their creative work is used and should receive fair payment for that use. The PC is just putting its view on whether each of the current ways to promote and constrain that remain appropriate. For example, do the signatories really oppose recommendation 6.2 to limit liability for the use of orphan works where a user has undertaken a diligent search to locate the relevant rights holder? Or recommendation 5.4 that the Australian Government should strengthen the governance and transparency arrangements for collecting societies?

    1. I should add to my point above that I do have significant reservations about the PC’s recommendation 6.1 regarding a fair use exception, which is one of the biggest proposed changes. Moving to a principles-based fair use regime would create some inherent uncertainty regarding what specific uses would and wouldn’t be legal. No-one can say exactly what would actually happen, in practice, with respect to the important Australian content discussed in the Open Letter, and the financial implications. Australian content of high artistic quality, which is so important to our society, is typically barely financial viable (if that) even with current copyright protections, and we shouldn’t risk making it even less financial viable.

  3. As someone who attended the Productivity Commission’s public hearings, I can affirm their complete disdain for myself and my fellow authors. They have next to little understanding of cultural production and see it as little more than a conveyer belt for mass production.

  4. The length of the term of copyright is essentialy a international treaty matter. Significant changes to it are rather unlikely, anytime soon.

    And something does need to be done about orphan works in public libraries -as it stands public libraries cannot legaly scan and index and make avaliable to the public , books that have been out of print for many decades , whose author and publisher are ‘uncontactable’ have effectively vanished from the earth.

    While no doubt the Copyright agency would prefer a system where they recieved copyright payments, ‘on behalf of unknown authors ‘ so as to permit the scanning of orphan works in libraries. But that would simply add to the costs of our public library system , and obviously the payments could not actually go to the actual ”uncontactable’ authors.
    Expensive and quite pointless.

  5. No one is proposing that artists work should not be protected, which is what the scare-mongers are claiming., The PC is really just proposing codification of terms of copy write to make Australia’s system broadly compatible with international (not just US) practice.

    Artists should stop hyper-ventilating and actually read the damned report themselves instead of listening to second hand ‘the sky is falling’ gossip

    1. Unicorn
      so true.
      They should also understand that one of the entities directly threatened by Fair Use is the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) – fair use would greatly reduce the need for university and other education libraries to continue to pay something like 100 million a year to CAL for ‘photocopying’ done by students in the library , and obviously that would reduce the amount of money CAL would have to pay its staffs wages etc.

  6. What should also be noted is that Aboriginal artists, over many years, have taken successful legal action under current copyright law (eg Bulun Bulun) and thereby strengthened copyright protection for non-Aboriginal artists.

  7. As a visual artist and having looked at the legal implications for protecting creative copyright, we don’t really have a legal system in place. I suppose the whole copyright issue needs to be looked at and revamped to protect us.

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