A Talk With Digital-Image Mogul Bill Gates

Corbis Chief Sees Big Market for Media Rights Management

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Setting aside his best-known hat as chief of Microsoft Corp. for a day, Bill Gates donned his Corbis cap yesterday as he visited Manhattan for the annual meeting of the digital image archive and stock photo company he founded.
Bill Gates, who privately owns Corbis outside of Microsoft Corp., sat down for an interview with Ad Age reporter Lisa Sanders to discuss the burgeoning digital image market.

Now the second-largest enterprise of its kind, Seattle-based Corbis manages 70 million images, many of them cultural icons crucial to advertising and media companies. The privately held company, which is not connected to Microsoft, competes neck-and-neck with Getty Images.

Still not profitable
But despite being an industry leader, with revenue that grew by 34% to $228 million in 2005, Corbis is still not profitable and Mr. Gates was clearly hoping to draw the interest of more advertising agencies, marketers and media companies with his high-profile appearance.

In a sit-down interview with Advertising Age, Mr. Gates emphasized how the digital revolution across all media has made access to ever larger amounts of digital imagery an increasingly important daily need.

That same vision -- which came to him at the dawn of the Internet age -- has clearly driven his interest in the image-rights business since founding Corbis in 1989.

"I remember when I first toured the Bettmann Archive," Mr. Gates told an audience of analysts, journalists and advertising executives at yesterday's gathering, held at the Reuters headquarters in Times Square. The collection includes some of the world's best-known photos, including the famous shots of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue and Marilyn Monroe standing over a Manhattan subway grate as the pleated skirt of her white dress billows to reveal her thighs.

Antiquated systems
It was 1995, and "I thought, 'Wow, this is the antithesis of my original vision," Mr. Gates said. There were file drawers, with envelopes, and they were duplicating images and sending those off to clients. Things were very hard to find. It was a very paper-driven, manual process, and yet some of the world's most interesting images were there."

Since then, Corbis has built an online library of digitized photographs and expanded the services it offers to include plain-vanilla image and motion licensing to assignment photography and rights services. "We've had to scale up the size of our sales activities around different customers -- rights management, royalty-free, new consumer markets, and it is really in the last several years that we've gotten to the scale that makes us a very strong business and a business that can continue to make strong investments."

Corbis is intensifying its focus on advertising agencies and marketers. In addition to selling rights to its images, it wants to build its rights management unit, employing a team to negotiate image rights clearance from multiple sources -- celebrities, estates, publishers and major studios.

Dramatic shift in media usage
Mr. Gates and Corbis CEO Steve Davis are betting that the dramatic shift in media usage bodes well for Corbis' services. "The ad market is certainly not standing still," Mr. Gates said. "More and more of media consumption is going to be online, to be digital, and we're really just at the beginning of that."

New platforms for content, such as cellphones and motion-video ads, require images and rights clearance. "What's happening in interactive advertising," Mr. Davis said, raises "a huge amount of complexity around what are the rights, who has the rights, and how are they going to manage that."

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