Corbis Bets on a Digital Revolution

Image Library to Help Ad Shops Navigate Rights

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NEW YORK ( -- The world's richest man is relying on Madison Avenue to help turn his money-losing company into a profitable venture.

Not Microsoft -- Corbis, the licenser and manager of photos, videos and other images begun in 1989 by the software giant's founder Bill Gates. Corbis' image library contains over 80 million photos and its Bettmann Archive, purchased in 1995, includes famous shots like Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue and Marilyn Monroe standing over a Manhattan subway grate, coyly trying to hold down her billowing skirt.

Mr. Gates is betting that as advertising digitizes and moves to iPods, cellphones and many other devices, there will be an explosion in the need for rights clearances that Corbis can provide. "More and more, media consumption is moving online, to digital, and we're really just at the beginning of that," he said (see sidebar).

Corbis' rights unit, which sources content and negotiates clearances for images from celebrities or their estates, films and TV studios, or musicians and music companies, grew by 80% in 2005. But it still comprises less than 10% of Corbis' $228 million in total revenue. Imaging licensing is the company's core, comprising the remainder. (Incidentally, that's equal to less than one-half percent of Mr. Gates' reported $50 billion net worth. Microsoft collects as much revenue in 48 hours as Corbis does in a year).

"I remember when I first toured the Bettmann Archive," 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." Corbis recently bought a software maker whose product helps clients manage their photo usage online.

Advertising agencies and marketers know of Corbis and regularly buy from its vast image library, and Mr. Gates believes the next logical step is to package that with accessing rights. And as the type of media in which ads appear expands beyond traditional TV and print, the increasing complexity of clearing rights will add to demand for its service, Corbis reasons.

No slam-dunk
Despite its status as the No. 2 player in the industry -- Getty Images, also in Seattle, is the leader with revenue of $733.7 million -- Corbis faces an uphill battle in building its rights-services business. "It's not a slam-dunk," said Ozzie Spenningsby, director-broadcast production, TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York. "Most often, we do rights clearance in-house. Our business managers are capable of handling it." Agencies aren't the only competition, either. Companies including Platinum Rye Entertainment and CMG Worldwide are also established players.

Still there could be a market. Danielle Korn, exec VP-director of broadcast operations at McCann Erickson, negotiated rights to "MacGyver" and with the show's star, Richard Dean Anderson, for a recent MasterCard spot without outside help. "If I have a relationship with Paramount, I can do it myself," she said, but added that "there are a lot of small agencies and advertisers who don't have in-house resources."

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