I have a beautiful picture of my Aunt Bertha showing off her begonias in full bloom. Any offers? You can download it and pay by micropayments over the next 50 years.
Being a digital baron, I know I only have to sell off Aunt Bertha for millions of micropayments to hit pay dirt. Bill Gates knows this, too. In his book The Road Ahead he talks about 'friction-free capitalism'. The idea is that capitalism will be freed up by the emerging digital economy, with happy smiley consumers using intelligent agents to find the best deals and genial suppliers responding by competing fairly in the name of free market enterprise. In Bill's garden, good guys like us get rich because we use technology to make expensive things cheap.
Where copyright fits into this vision is less clear. Being one of the finer (and more controversial) aspects of a modern economy, copyright isn't one of the subjects that Bill expanded on in his book. Especially when it comes to some of the world's finest images. More's the pity because we could all learn a lot from his views. But we shall have to make do with sifting through the strands of his burgeoning digital image empire. It's an empire that could have a major impact on multimedia and the provision of images on the Net. And it's a strategy that is unnerving the photographic industry.
Most people involved in creating and selling images know that the Internet has the potential to create a whole new way of distributing and searching such material. But no-one has gone as far as Microsoft, which is building up the resources prior to capitalising on them by creating Corbis.
Corbis (Latin for woven basket) is a privately held company founded in 1989 to market high-quality digital content. It collects digital images of science and technology, the fine arts, history, people, cultures and natural history. It has three operating divisions - the image licensing group, Bettmann, and Corbis Publishing. Corbis' image licensing group provides content from the digital archive to creative professionals; Bettmann licenses material to the publishing community from its collection of more than 16 million images; and Corbis Publishing produces and publishes CD-ROMs. Corbis employs 370 people and three full-time intellectual property lawyers.
Some photographers stand to make more money by selling to Corbis because the deals are not exclusive, and Corbis offers an advance which photographers 'earn' out as the product begins to sell. But what no-one can predict is how the market will change as 24-hour near-instant access to pictures takes off.
Ironically, Corbis began life providing content for CD-ROMs but its hard line on copyright didn't pay off and it was relaunched first as Continuum and then as Corbis. With the relaunch came the acquisition of the massive Bettman archive, arguably the most famous collection of photography in the US. Corbis also got closer to the industry by hiring top industry figures. More recently it has bought the digital rights to Ansell Adams' work and hired 30 photographers to roam the globe, snapping the good, the bad and the ugly. The number of licence deals now amounts to over 500.
Corbis is becoming the Benetton of the digital photography world. Many of its images have cross-cultural appeal. The fizz has gone out of the CD-ROM world and many are happy to profit from this new image broker in the knowledge that Microsoft may have to spend millions before the gamble pays off. But the fear will not go away for the thousands of small agencies which cannot find the funds to create online archives. The idea of customers searching these vast collections is a massive threat to their business. It may be a long time before people follow Bill Gates and build digital walls of art in their houses that change with the seasons, but with publishers seeking cheaper and quicker ways of filling print and online publications with world-class images the demand is not in question.
What I want to know is what Bill will offer me for some nice shots of my Aunt Bertha. I can't understand why he hasn't called yet.
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