top of page
  • Writer's pictureLynn Elsey

Terri Janke - The art of Justice

Updated: Nov 7, 2018

Terri Janke’s passion for protecting the rights of Indigenous artists helped her develop a thriving law career, writes LYNN ELSEY.

Copyright and passion are two words seldom encountered in the same sentence. But for Terri Janke, using copyright and intellectual property (IP) law to further the case of Indigenous social justice has been the raison d’être for a passionate legal career.

As a shy Wuthathi/Meriam girl growing up in Cairns, Janke never dreamed of becoming a lawyer and business owner. In a world where Indigenous students were automatically delegated to the remedial class regardless of aptitude, positive career role models were thin on the ground.

But reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird opened her eyes to the power of the law and social justice to change lives. When her older sister Toni enrolled in law at the University of New South Wales, Janke decided to do the same.

She admits she had a romanticised image of the law, expecting it to be like an episode of the television show LA Law. The reality was a shock. “It was really hard,” she says.

Janke ended up leaving university, believing she wasn’t cut out for a legal career. She took a job as a secretary at an Aboriginal arts organisation and “fell in love” with Indigenous art. Janke worked her way up to a senior policy role. It was then that she became aware of the limitations of Australian copyright and IP law to fairly address issues relating to Aboriginal art and knowledge.

“At the time, there was lots of talk about people ripping off Aboriginal art,” she says. Exposure to some inspiring young intellectual property lawyers and the realisation that copyright provided real avenues to achieve social justice prompted her to rethink her decision to quit law.

"Around this time, we also had the Mabo case, which made me see the law wasn't just about legislation but the dynamism of the common law," she says.

She became passionate about the inability of copyright law to protect Indigenous cultural and IP rights, which gave her the incentive to return to university and resume her legal studies.

"I realised I could use the power I had to turn bad into good. It fascinated me. I returned to uni and did an arts/law degree, now having a strong connection I didn't have before. The rights to knowledge were so integral and so important and nobody else was doing it," Janke says.

Second time around

With passion on her side. studying law was easier and Janke excelled. She was offered a summer clerkship at Phillips Fox, where she was exposed to life in a large law firm.

Phillips Fox offered her a graduate position, bur she turned it down. instead joining a small firm. Frankel Lawyers which focuses on arts and entertainment. The firm won a contract to review laws relating to Australian Indigenous knowledge. The work stemmed from a growing awareness that IP laws didn't address Indigenous culture and beliefs.

Janke spent the next few years working on and authoring the landmark report Our Culture, Our Future. The report was influential in the development of legal recognition and protection for Indigenous cultural and IP rights.

Using business for change

Writing the report inspired Janke to focus on Indigenous copyright and IP issues. She realised she wanted to provide legal services to Indigenous clients, helping empower them to be creative and to prosper in business. So, she set out on her own.

In 2000, she opened a practice in Redfern specialising in copyright. Initially, she had just one client word got out and she had an array of artists seeking legal advice.

“Most of the time they had no money, but some did end up becoming paying clients,” Janke says. She was happy to put in the hours as she recognised the importance of educating the Indigenous community about IP.

Janke also put her love for writing to work. “Writing was a way to establish my reputation.” Along with contributing papers to legal and other formal publications, her talents extended to fiction, allowing her to reach a different audience. Her lyrical novel, Butterfly Song (Penguin Books), weaves concepts of native title and connections to land, stories and song through a story about an Indigenous law student.

As her business grew. she helped Indigenous artists with licensing agreements, contracts and trademarking. Clients range from Rene Kulitja, who created the “Yananyi Dreaming” design for Qantas’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft, to fashion designers.

Today, copyright and Indigenous arts clients are the core of Janke’s practice, but her team also offers a full range of commercial law, IP, and governance and mediation services.

Supporting Indigenous business development is a key aspect of the practice, including running nationwide workshops to help advise Indigenous entrepreneurs on issues ranging from starting a business to understanding contracts and leases.

“We realised that we can’t solve everyone’s individual problems, so we decided to try to raise the educational level and awareness of Indigenous people in business,” Janke says.

She also has been closely involved with Supply Nation, which helps minority suppliers gain access to traditional supply and procurement chains, creating employment and providing role models of successful Indigenous businesspeople. The organisation also helps educate non-Indigenous providers on how to procure Indigenous services.

Janke has created a series of cultural protocols for Indigenous projects, which helps protect rights, creates commercial opportunities and encourages Indigenous people to share their knowledge.

She and her team have worked with museums, libraries and other organisations such as Screen Australia, helping them explain and apply these protocols. For example, when the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris wanted to incorporate Indigenous arts into the façade of its building, it used Janke’s protocols as a framework.

Making a difference

Janke’s skill, passion and expertise haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2012, the Commonwealth Attorney-General named her Indigenous Legal Professional of the Year. She was named one of the Australian Financial Review and Westpac’s 100 Women of Influence in 2013. In 2015, she was a finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards.

Janke is comfortable with the limelight. “Growing up, I didn’t have any role models,” she says. “I realise how important it is to have someone to look at and say, ‘If they can do it, I can’. ”

She’s proud of her firm.

“The practice has become well known. It’s got my name on it, but it’s not just me any more. The people who work here work hard, are dedicated and understand what we stand for. Everyone wants to make a difference. That’s what I am really proud of.

“I get letters and cards from clients and community people thanking me for the work I am doing. And I still have a lot to do.

“As an Indigenous lawyer, it is so much harder to prove yourself, especially as a small firm and as a woman. Seventeen years ago, when I started out on my own, everyone was saying, ‘Good luck, I guess you will be looking for a job in a few months’.”

But she’s still here – her passion and focus helping her build a successful practice.


Originally published in the July 2017 edition of the NSW Law Society Journal.

NSW Law Society Journal, July 2017

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page