Picture the scene. Your child is late home and you're getting concerned. You ring his mobile. And on the handset screen a familiar extra-terrestrial imperative lands: "Phone home!". Steve Davis, chief executive of Corbis, Bill Gates' digital imagery venture, calls this a "mobile moment". In other words, it's a piece of cinema magic repackaged to give a new technology a touch of old-style pizzaz.
The example could just as easily be Arnold Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back", Gable's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" or even, Meg Ryan's wordless "faking it" scene from When Harry Met Sally. When you have one of the world's biggest image banks at your disposal, the possibilities to choreograph communications in this way are almost endless.
Davis is discussing the concept with the world's biggest mobile operators, most of which are investing heavily to persuade consumers to adopt picture and video messaging. He says the idea is emblematic of the Corbis approach. "We don't think of Corbis as a photographic library," Davis says. "We see ourselves as a provider of products and services that solve our publishing and advertising clients' problems."
His point is that many would regard the repackaging of such sensitive entertainment assets as, legally speaking, too hot to handle. Because of its close relationship with the Hollywood studios and its understanding of intellectual property and rights issues, Corbis does not.
In a world where the arrival of digital technology has brought serious challenges to copyright protection of music and film, Corbis is that rare thing: a business that believes copyright protection and commercial use of the internet can peaceably co-exist, even if it has yet to turn a profit.
A lawyer by training, though one with an unorthodox background in human rights campaigning, Davis says this legal expertise lies at the heart of the operation. "In today's online market, you can't be in business without spending an enormous amount of time thinking about how to protect intellectual property - how to restrict access to it, how to exploit and market it."
It is an ever more contested market as industry trends such as the boom in celebrity imagery create conflict between famous individuals who recognise the commercial value of their image rights, the organisations behind them, from sports clubs to broadcasters, and the image vendors, from the paparazzi to picture archives.
The larger clients that license Corbis images have in-house teams of compliance lawyers. But for other companies, copyright issues can be a barrier to a sale. Davis says: "Traditionally in this industry, if there was a copyright issue with an image, it was your problem. So we have built back into our organisation a whole group of people who are nothing but experts in rights clearance - the core of the group came out of Universal Studios, and in the movie industry they really have to know their stuff. So, if the client wants it, we can, for a fee, provide all the necessary clearances for any image they want to license. And that's why I say we are more than a photo library."
This servicing aspect of the operation, exemplified by the 300 Corbis "creative consultants" who work with clients on their imaging needs, tends to align Corbis with Gates' other software interests, rather than Corbis's competitors.
Globally, there are, in addition to specialist libraries, two significant photographic archives. Both are based in Seattle. Getty Images has 70m digital and analogue images in its files. Corbis also has about 70m images, with 3m digital images online. Its resources include the Bettman Archive, home to such famous images as the pictures of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue and Orson Welles broadcasting the radio serial, War of the Worlds.
The chief competition to the image specialists comes from companies that want to keep their image production work in-house or with agency suppliers. Corbis points out that typical costs for a two-day shoot for an advertisement, for instance, amount to something like $250,000. It says it can usually supply a suitable image for license at a cost of $28,000 for 12 months.
Corbis buys images on a contract basis and licenses them to organisations or individuals. Photographers retain the copyright.
The company was created by Bill Gates, who owns it 100 per cent, in the early 1990s, in a somewhat ad hoc manner. Old hands recall that the first licensing deal was struck with a collection of classical paintings called Archivo Iconografico; many of the images are still available on the Corbis database.
The initiative was launched well before the internet's significance was apparent. Gates believed there would be a market for digital images of cultural objects, so museums and art galleries were the initial targets.
"We started Corbis well ahead of there being a real market," Davis says. "In 1993, there was no way that people could handle or pay for digital media from their desktops. It was a frightening time for people who were unfamiliar with digital concepts. I remember a conference in Cannes when Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said: 'I will never, never, never, have a digital machine in my museum'. Now kiosks and interactive displays are commonplace.
"Our basic concept was that over a 10-year period, the world would change dramatically in the way people bought, sold, managed, distributed or engaged in digital media, particularly imagery. And this would be driven by technology: multimedia authoring and desktop publishing software, as well as printing technology. People would have printers by their desks and that would transform demand for images. So our idea was to get in early."
He agrees, however, that advertisers, publishers and the entertainment industry are the chief contributors to Corbis's sales, with the consumer side failing to live up to his, and Gates' high expectations.
Davis's career path might be said to have displayed a similar unpredictability. Born in Dillon, Montana, he was educated at Princeton and had periods teaching English literature in Taiwan, playing the piano and studying the Chinese language and Chinese law.
He was heavily involved in human rights and refugee resettlement issues and studied law at Columbia Law School. He eventually joined Preston, Gates and Ellis, a Seattle law firm specialising in, among other things, intellectual property where he developed an interest in the marketing, protection and exploitation of intellectual assets.
The Gates of Preston, Gates and Ellis just happened to be Bill Gates' father: "That was a stroke of good fortune," he says. Davis's work commended itself to Gates Jnr who asked him to help think through Corbis' strategy and business plan.
"I was a good fit because I not only had a creative and media background, but I knew how to deal with government and public institutions - in those early days we thought the largest repositories for digital media would be museums and ministries of culture."
Gates raised the hackles of the cultural establishment at the time with plans to buy up licences for digital images of the world's art collections.
Unhealthy? No, says Davis: "Today creativity is flourishing and artists are flourishing. They are far better off than they were 10 years ago."
Davis was appointed first general counsel then co-CEO (with Tony Rojas) and finally chief executive. It has been, he acknowledges, a long 10 years: "It's been a start-up throughout that decade." he says. Getty reported a profit of $21.4m last year, but Corbis says its investment in infrastructure, digitisation of images and international roll-out mean it remains unprofitable on annual turnover of about $100m.
But there is kudos. Agents for the Vatican and the Queen seek his advice about digitising some of the world's most famous artefacts.
By Alan Cane
FT.com site; Sep 15, 2003
название хорошее, и я разбежался было... но статья на самом деле не про то, хотя и очень-очень близко. вот если бы стив дэвис знал про mime... и наоборот, конечно.