1. Home
  2. Aboriginal Art
  3. Protecting Australian Indigenous art
  4. Case Studies of copying and appropriation
  5. Case study 3: Terry Yumbulul and the ten-dollar note
Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size

Case study 3: Terry Yumbulul and the ten-dollar note

In 1991, Warimiri artist Terry Yumbulul took action against the Aboriginal Artists Agency, alleging that the Agency had used false and misleading conduct in obtaining his consent to grant it an exclusive licence to his works. His action was ultimately dismissed.

The case is of interest not only because it involves an intermediary operating on behalf of the artist, but also because of the vagaries of copyright law identified by the presiding judge in his ruling.

The circumstances

In 1987, the Reserve Bank of Australia sought the help of the Aboriginal Artists Agency in the process of designing a commemorative ten-dollar note (to be produced in recognition of the 1988 bicentenary of European occupation). The note’s designer, Harry Williamson, had seen Terry Yumbulul’s sculpture Morning Star Pole in the Australian Museum; and wanted to use it in the design. The Agency was asked if it could organise a licence for this purpose.

The nature of the negotiations that followed are a matter of contention. Ultimately, however, Yumbulul signed a licence agreement that had the effect of giving the Agency permission ‘to reproduce my work by mechanical reproduction throughout the world and to license others to do so’, under terms that would direct 85% of royalties back to him. This was the Aboriginal Artists Agency’s standard form of licence agreement. The banknote was accordingly printed, after the Reserve Bank obtained a sub-licence from the Agency.

In evidence, Yumbulul indicated his belief that, by signing the licence, he had merely given the Aboriginal Artists Agency authority to allow an important government body to look at his work. The court did not accept this. Later, he indicated the licence permitted his expectation that any use made would be limited - in particular, limited by the sacred character of the work in question.

Significance of the work

Morning star poles have an important place in the lives of numerous Aboriginal communities. Their significance attaches to their function: the poles have a central role in ceremonies that commemorate the deaths of particular individuals, and link the spirits of the dead to their ancestral home. They also reinforce bonds of respect between peoples, as different groups are brought together for the commemorative ceremony at which the pole is presented to the family of the deceased person.

Decorated with feathers and string, these wooden poles are painted with sacred designs - designs that Yumbulul had gained authority to paint after a gradual process of teaching and revelation within his community. Since these deeper meanings are unknown to outsiders, he had permission to create and display such poles for educational purposes, and to receive any associated income. The pole in this case was commissioned by an art dealer and sold to the Australian Museum.

Gaps in the law?

As it happened, this matter hinged essentially on the conduct of the Aboriginal Artists Agency, not on the legality of the licence which was consistent with Australian copyright law. Even so, French J, the presiding judge, noted the limits and pitfalls of the Copyright Act in providing protection to Yumbulul and, more significantly, his community.

As the original author, Yumbulul was regarded as the sole owner of copyright in the work. French J stated:

There was evidence that Mr. Yumbulul came under considerable criticism from within the Aboriginal community for permitting the reproduction of the pole by the bank. It may well be that when he executed the agreement he did not fully appreciate the implications of what he was doing in terms of his own cultural obligations ...

And it may also be that Australia’s copyright law does not provide adequate recognition of Aboriginal community claims to regulate the reproduction and use of works which are essentially communal in origin.[21]

Discussion points

  • Terry Yumbulul had signed a licence permitting someone else to market his work and authorise others to reproduce it. Suggest things that could be written into such a licence to better protect Aboriginal artists.
  • Yumbulul was clearly surprised and dismayed by what happened to his work. What things occurred that he had not foreseen?
  • Whose responsibility do you think it was to ensure that Yumbulul’s work was treated with the respect that he expected?

[21] French J, ‘Yumbulul v Reserve Bank of Australia and Others', in Intellectual Property Review, Vol 21, Butterworths, NSW, 1991.

Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size
Case study 3: Terry Yumbulul and the ten-dollar note