'The Copyright of Albert Namatjira' by Colin Golvan

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this commentary contains images or names of people who have since passed away.

You see them driving from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs, the majestic ghost white river gums depicted so faithfully in the paintings of Albert Namatjira. You would think you were looking at a Namatjira painting. And then there is the vista of the craggy hills of the West McDonnell Ranges in their mysterious blue hue – a signature feature of Namatjira’s art.

The ownership of Namatjira’s much-loved works of art has changed hands many times over the years and has generated millions of dollars in sales. No doubt copyright permissions have also followed – I say ‘no doubt’ because the actual course of the management of the copyright is unknown. It is owned by Legend Press, operated today by Philip Brackenreg, following the acquisition of the copyright from the Public Trustee of the Northern Territory by Legend Press in 1983 for $8,500. Over the years, there have been many instances of reproductions of Namatjira’s art in books, cards, calendars and on objects and garments, as well as auction catalogues – all copyright uses requiring permission and, presumably, payment.

The circumstances of the 1983 transaction are largely unknown. Albert died in 1959. In 1957 he had made a copyright arrangement with John Brackenreg (Philip’s father) and received royalties from the use of the copyright. In his will, Namatjira passed the copyright to his wife, Rubina. She died in 1974. The Public Trustee continued to manage the copyright and, it is understood, made copyright payments to family members. Why he determined to sell the copyright in 1983 is unknown, but it did mean that the copyright payments to Albert Namatjira’s relations ceased. Albert’s copyright will expire in 2029.

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Published in April 2017, no. 390

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