Fairfax in legal battle to retrieve photo archive from US firm hired to digitise images

Fairfax_Media_logoA vast trove of Australia’s photographic history sits in the hands of a US court after a company tasked with digitising Fairfax Media’s archive went into receivership.

Fairfax has filed a lawsuit in Little Rock, Arkansas, looking to recover millions of images dating back as far as the 19th Century from Rogers Photo Archive (RPA), a US company it tasked with digitising its archive two years ago which has been placed in receivership.

Under the terms of a deal signed in 2013 RPA would digitise and tag the huge archive for free, in return for the rights to sell the originals after the process had been completed.

However, it is feared whilst the digitisation and tagging process was not finished some of the originals may already have been sold by RPA after they were posted for sale on eBay.

RPA was placed into receivership last November, with owner John Rogers facing lawsuits reported to total upwards of US$90 million.

Court documents seen by Mumbrella reveal Fairfax Media terminated the digitisation agreement days after RPA was placed into receivership, which necessitated the return of the archives.

The Pulaski Circuit Court has now issued an injunction at Fairfax’s request ordering that none of its images should be sold or transferred without the court’s approval.

Fairfax’s complaint said it “faces irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy at law”, and the company is understood to be working with the court-appointed receiver to recover images which may have been sold without approval.

The pictures come from a range of mastheads, some of which are now defunct, including: The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, The Sun, The Sydney Mail, The Age, The Sunday Age, The Argus, National Review, Newsday, Sunday Press, The Leader, The Mail, Warrnambool Standard and others.

Mumbrella understands all materials belonging to The Age (comprising negatives and index cards) were returned to the Melbourne library two weeks ago.

The Age’s collection alone has been estimated at over five million images in print and negative formats, some of which date back to the turn of the century. The bulk of The Age’s photographic collection is believed to stem from the 1950s through to the 1980s.

Whilst RPA was due to foot the cost of returning the archives to Australia under the terms of the agreement Fairfax has offered to foot those costs temporarily to secure its “rights in the material”.

The New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage became involved in Fairfax’s arrangement with RPA when it emerged that Fairfax New Zealand wished to export pre-1973 photographs that were protected under New Zealand law.

While the company was granted an exception for the transfer the deal with RPA was altered to give the Ministry authority over what RPA could sell.

A Fairfax spokesperson said: “Many images have already been scanned and some tagging (application of metadata) work has been completed. We are working towards agreement on a way forward with the receiver and First Arkansas Bank to have the digitalisation of the collection completed.”

Fairfax Media declined to reveal how many prints and negatives are currently in Arkansas and how much it is costing to pursue legal action.

Whilst some suitors have declared an interest in picking up RPA’s assets it is understood these would not include the Fairfax archives as ownership was not due to pass to the company until the digitisation work was completed.

When the digitisation deal began to taken shape in May 2013, the New Zealand Herald’s Brian Rudman described the RPA operation: “The images are scanned by 120 staff in Little Rock and Memphis, then the labelling and photo tagging is added by 200-plus staff in Calcutta and Bangalore.”

The agreement specified that digitised images be scanned front and back and delivered as JPEG files, including metadata that would incorporate all legible details of date, subject, photographer, publication and copyright in the image.

In 2014, Fairfax Media cut 30 full time employees from its photographic staff.

Jack Fisher


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