INSIGHT

Albert Namatjira's family wins decades-long battle for compensation

By Miriam Stiel
Industrials Intellectual Property Patents & Trade Marks

In brief

The descendants of one of Australia's most well-known artists, Albert Namatjira, have finally received compensation for decades of missed royalties. Lawyer Edward Thien reports.

Background

Albert Namatjira was a famous Indigenous artist, known for his watercolour landscape paintings. The author of approximately 2,000 paintings, Namatjira's works are displayed across Australia. However, following his death in 1959, his family has been in a battle to earn any income from his work.

Copyright ownership

In 1983, a public trustee for the Northern Territory Government sold the copyright in Namatjira's work to a Sydney family, for a mere $8,500. This contradicted his will, in which he left all his assets to his wife and children. In the years since, his works are believed to have earned more than $10 million. Following this, Namatjira's family, through the Namatjira Legacy Trust, fought to reclaim ownership of the copyright.

In October last year, the Trust successfully negotiated for the copyright in Namatjira's work to be transferred to it in exchange for $1. It intends the royalties that will now flow its way be used to resource Indigenous community initiatives.

The transfer of copyright not only means a source of income for the Trust but also allows it control over how the works are reproduced and where they are displayed. In previous decades, the reproduction of these works was heavily restricted, meaning it was difficult for galleries to market them.

Compensation

The Namatjira family's next goal was to receive compensation for the decades of lost income resulting from the sale of the copyright in the artworks by the public trustee. In August 2018, the Northern Territory Government agreed to provide Namatjira's descendants with an undisclosed amount of compensation. This came after the public trustee acknowledged that it should not have sold Namatjira's copyright.

Perpetual copyright?

Copyright in Namatjira's work is set to expire in 2029. Therefore, the Namatjira Legacy Trust's next goal is to have the copyright extended in perpetuity. Being a charitable trust, the Namatjira Legacy Trust hopes that perpetual copyright in the works will allow it to continue to generate proceeds to benefit Indigenous communities.

While having a perpetual copyright seems like an unusual idea, it is not without precedent. In the United Kingdom, special legislation was passed to grant a perpetual right to royalties in the play Peter Pan. This came after the author, Sir James Matthew Barrie, gifted all his copyright in the play to a children's hospital in London. Since then, the hospital has been able to partly fund itself through the royalties it has collected.