Bill's basket case

PHOTOGRAPHERS' challenges to the contracts "offered" by Corbis are biting - hard. The mega-photo-seller's chief negotiator on the matter, Peter Howe, resigned in late August, days before he was due to present its case at the Perpignan visa pour l'image photography festival. Then Corbis cancelled its presentation at the festival, which it sponsors, after its PR briefing notes leaked to the Editorial Photo UK & Ireland (EPUK) mailing list.

Corbis is privately owned by Bill Gates, investing a few million of what he's made from Microsoft. Anyone who's bothered to read one of that company's software license agreements will recognise the tone and intent of the contract Corbis is presenting to photographers.

The conflict is particularly sharp because Corbis is locked in a battle with Mark Getty (scion of the oil family) to control photo archives in the digital age. Named from the Latin for "basket", Corbis started in business by buying all rights to bucketloads of stock shots and then selling them as clip-art, offering its customers unlimited use.

It grew by buying the rights to digital reproduction of all works in the UK National Gallery, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, and so on. Then it moved in on the traditional photo-agency world, notably buying the Sygma agency.

From Corbis' behaviour it is far from clear that it understands what an agency actually does: represents and promotes the work of individual creators. The preamble to the contract states that "Existing contracts in some divisions do not address digital issues. Others are not in alignment with industry trends." One of the more imaginative features of the trend which Corbis is trying to create is its claim that digitising a work creates new author's rights - which belong to guess who? Some see this as an attempt to engineer an end-run around authors' rights laws.

Following talks between Corbis and the NUJ, EPUK, the Association of Photographers and the British Association of Photo Libraries and Agencies, photographers prepared a detailed critique of the contract.

They object, among other things, to: increased commissions for the agency; onerous clauses on photographers' legal liabilities; weak clauses on Corbis' liability for lost photos; and Corbis granting itself an apparently unlimited right to make "derivative works" from photos - that is, to indulge in photomanipulation.

The leaked "Plan for Perpignan" memo concludes a list of messages the corporation wants to get across with "We are dedicated to photojournalism as one of the key components in the photographic spectrum that we offer to our clients." As EPUK comments: "Unfortunately, to produce photojournalism you need photojournalists. That's them over there, walking out the door with their archives." A large group of Sygma photojournalists is, we understand, indeed preparing to mount a legal challenge to Corbis' plan to move their archives.

Dealing with presentation questions, the memo notes that "the press conference could be held in French, which would please the natives". Ça amuserait les Français... and may help explain why the newspaper Le Monde ran an article, highly critical of Corbis, after the Perpignan fiasco.

The Freelance can find, incidentally, no mention of the dispute in any English broadsheet. Even more oddly, only CBS News seems to have picked up on a June report from US media newsletter inside.com that the US Justice Department is eyeing Corbis and Getty up for possible proceedings to decide whether they abuse monopoly positions.

For much more information on progress in the dispute see the EPUK public website at www.epuk.org.

Oct 2000
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Trying to find a photo of Corbis' owner on its website produces an interesting result. The Freelance typed "Bill Gates" into the little box, with the quotes, and was rewarded with the message:
"The query could not be processed since it contains one or more symantics / syntacs errors". Sic.
Then a help page appeared suggesting that exactly what we did was the right thing to do.

Last modified: 22 October 2000
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