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Bulun Bulun v. R&T Textiles Pty Ltd.
Australia Federal Court
86 FCR 244, 157 A.L.R. 193 (1998)
Bulun Bulun (plaintiff) was an Aboriginal artist. Bulun created an artwork based on Aboriginal ritual knowledge. In Aboriginal culture, art created by an Aboriginal artist had to comply with strict rules regarding the creation of the art based on religious beliefs and ritual knowledge. The Aboriginal community believed that all art must comply with their traditions because their art was connected to their god and their sacred land. According to the assertions of several Aboriginal people, unauthorized reproductions of traditional Aboriginal art threatened the stability and continuance of their society and interfered with their relationship to Barnda, the tortoise god, who emerged from the watering hole Djulibinyamurr and created the Aboriginal people and their land. The artwork by Bulun depicted this sacred watering hole. When Bulun sold the artwork, he kept the proceeds for himself. Many artworks based on ritual knowledge created by Aboriginal artists with permission of their community have been sold, and the individual artists have kept the proceeds to use for their own benefit. Notably, Aboriginal artists were not only permitted by their Aboriginal community to create art, but they had a duty to create it and to create it in accordance with tradition. R & T Textiles Pty Limited (R & T) (defendant) imported and sold printed clothing fabric that depicted part of the artwork. Bulun brought an action against R & T for copyright infringement. Upon service of the lawsuit, R & T admitted copyright infringement and ceased sale of the fabric. However, George Milpurrurru, another Aboriginal artist, also brought a claim as a representative of the Aboriginal owners of the land on which the watering hole was located. Because Aboriginal owners considered traditional knowledge and art based on such knowledge to be communal property, Milpurrurru sought a declaration that the Aboriginal people had an equitable ownership interest in the copyright of art created by members of their group including the artwork by Bulun.
Rule of Law
Holding and Reasoning (Von Doussa, J.)
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