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
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
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
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
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.