Everything Bill Can Do, Mark Can Do Better

ON June 15, 2000, French photo agency Sygma, one of the largest worldwide, was purchased by Microsoft chief Bill Gates through his company Corbis, and will be renamed Corbis Sygma.

The amount paid to Sygma was undisclosed but it is expected to yield profits many times its transacted price.

Founded in 1989, Corbis, which is Latin for woven basket or container, has been coughing up top money over the years to collectors and photographers for the rights to own and distribute their images.

Sygma is the first real-time news agency it purchased. In 1995, it also paid a big sum for the famous Bettmann Archive.

Corbis president Steve Davis, in Paris for the sale, said both companies would complement each other with Corbis providing the technology and Sygma providing the know-how in the news photo sector.

Corbis’ aggressive purchases are fueled partly by the activities of its competitor Getty Images, which has also been splurging on big names like Allsport and Liaison Agency.

To ready itself for bigger competition, Getty bought Art.com, the Chicago-based online poster and print company which has more than 100,000 images online, including works by artists such as Monet and Picasso.

Before buying Sygma, Corbis already has a large collection of 25 million historical, contemporary, celebrity, and fine art images, more than 1.5 million of these images are available online.

Through earlier purchases of Westlight and Outline, Corbis added to its rank big names like landscape master Galen Rowell and portrait specialist Michael O’Neill. Through another deal, Corbis also gained an exclusive right to distribute works by the late Ansel Adams.

The purchase of Sygma, a well-established agency with photographers all over the world, gives Corbis an additional 40 million images. But more importantly, Corbis positions itself to compete in the highly lucrative and fast-paced news photography business.

Interestingly, Getty announced in March that it was going to move its corporate headquarter from London to Seattle, a stone’s throw from Corbis headquarters in Belluvue.

If there is a master plan for these two giants, it is simply to buy up all the reputable agencies and collections they can lay their hands on, and then take a cut in royalties.

In the end, these two companies will own the rights to reproduce the majority of the world images, including fine arts.

On top of selling to media companies, the two companies have also struck the consumer markets. From Corbis website (www.corbis.com), consumers with a credit card can click away a classic reprint, with a choice of framing to go along too.

Getty’s members such as Allsport and Liaison are accessible from the mother-ship (www.getty-images.com), or directly from their independent websites.

To the general public, this race by the two giants to own the world’s images is just great news. After all, one no longer needs to travel long distance to look at an original painting or photograph.

Now, with a click of a few buttons, and for a small sum, anyone can download a famous picture for use. Many of them are even free.

Some of these lasting images have also been made into electronic postcards, and Corbis in turn charges advertisers like Epson for traffic.

Corbis said in a press release pertaining to their latest acquisition that in the coming months, it will be extending “this foray into photojournalism by announcing a series of partnerships with leading news media and technology companies.”

The question in many industry watchers’ mind is who’s the next to go? Would it be Magnum or Blackstar – the last two bastions of photojournalism?

Magnum is home to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Eve Arnold and all the mega-stars of photography.

Blackstar represents Peter and David Turnley, two prolific Pulitzer winners, Christopher Morris, and a whole stable of world-class shooters.

Photographers and wealth do not always agree.

Magnum was a great product born out of idealism but in the end, a commercial director was hired to look after the business. In its 50 years of existence, it has always been under some kind of financial cloud.

With the rapid growth in online trade and the potential of e-commerce, agencies which have in the past relied on courier and traditional mail, are seeing themselves shortchanged if they keep their stock offline.

Sygma, which has been in negotiations with different people before settling on Corbis, knew perfectly well the need to plunge into cyberspace.

“The Internet is a perfect platform for selling and distributing current news content to the commercial publishing market,” said Jean-Marc Smadja, general manager, Corbis Sygma Paris.

Allsport, considered by many to be the premier agency for sports photography, was sold to Getty in February 1998 for 16.6 million pounds and 1.1 million new shares.

Liaison Agency, which rivals Sygma in the arena of news photography, was acquired in 1997.

Getty also owns PhotoDisc, the world leader in royalty free stock photography. It also has, in Hulton Getty, a huge collection of historical images dating from the 19th century.

In October 1998, Getty also clinched the reproduction rights for Weegee Archives and Collection. The well-known paparazzi, who was the subject of a 1992 movie called The Public Eye, left behind about 12,000 images. Getty said after the acquistion that it planned to digitize and make available to the public 1000 of them.

Employees of the two big giants are often idealistic and defensive about their companies’ big appetite.

A Corbis employee said that its 1995 purchase of Bettmann Archive, then the world largest depository of news archives, saved the visual history of mankind from extinction.

To a certain extent, it was true. It was a well-known fact that the huge volume of work, many of them only indexed on decaying cards, was just rotting away in old and damp warehouses before it was bought over.

Compared to his stake in Microsoft, Gates’ investment in Corbis is considered minor.

Mark Getty, executive chairman of Getty Images and grandson of billionaire J. Paul Getty, told The Seattle Times newspaper, hometown paper of Corbis as well as Microsoft – “If Bill Gates. . .spent 99.9 percent of his time on Corbis instead of Microsoft, I’d have more reason to be concerned.”

But then, Corbis can always count on more financial support from Gates should it need more funding for more acquisitions.

Readily available to Corbis are also Microsoft and its internet subsidiaries, a strength that Getty does not really have. Then again, this is a problem easily fixed with money. Besides, everybody is looking for strategic alliances in cyberspace.

As it is, Corbis is already in partnership with the Micorsoft Expedia website to distribute some postcards. Programmers for the new Microsoft web browser – Internet Explorer 5 – have also conveniently slipped in the Corbis Picture Experience as the preferred search engine for images.

Surely, Gates’s motivation to keep Corbis going isn’t altruistic. He knows very well that a lot of money can be made through the sales and licensing of images.

Early this month, Corbis Images, the image-licensing division of Corbis, announced year-to-date growth of more than 200 percent through March 1999. Digital sales accounted for close to 50% of total sales.

According to the authoritative trade magazine Photo District News(PDN), Getty Images sales for the first quarter increased 38 percent over the first quarter of 1998 to US$52.2 million. Digital sales for the quarter were US $20.1 million, or 39 percent of total sales.

Mark Getty’s base salary was raised recently from US $275,000 to US $325,000, PDN reported. According to the same report, the board of directors also gave him a bonus of US $245,000 for 1998, plus stock options for 575,000 shares.

Other top executives, including Stephen Powell, the chief executive of Allsport who has already pocketed a handsome sum for the sales to Getty, also enjoyed huge increases.

But the good financial showing of Getty is partly at the expense of the photographers, the people it is supposed to help prosper.

By cutting the percentage paid to contributors, Getty shaved off a considerable amount in overheads, which many argue, should be given back to the photographers.

Jonathan Klein, CEO of Getty Images and one of the Getty chiefs who has been rewarded, was under fire recently for justifying cuts in photographers’ royalties by making a comparison between writers and photographers.

Photographers have higher overheads compared to writers.

In a letter to the editors of PDN, Richard Weisgrau, executive director of American Society of Media Photographers, challenges Klein to reduce his salary to “”the same level as that of the average photographer his agency used to represent as an agent.”


The column was first published in 2000.