In a bold extension of his long-running effort to acquire the rights to paintings, photographs and other works of art, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates' private company on Tuesday acquired the Bettmann Archive, the world's largest repository of historic photographs.
Corbis Corp., which the software billionaire formed in 1989 to create new uses and markets for digital content, bought the New York-based agency from the closely held Kraus Organization. Terms were not disclosed.
The Bettmann Archive, founded in the 1930s by Dr. Otto Bettmann, a photojournalist who came to the United States to flee the rise of Nazism in Europe, owns more than 16 million images, such as news pictures, historic images and specialized art-oriented collections dating to the 19th Century. The archive contains the collections of several news agencies, including the entire United Press International collection.
One of the images is the picture of the young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting the coffin of his father after President Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963.
Bettmann licenses pictures to large publishing companies and advertising agencies, and its images can be found everywhere, from the bottles of Snapple fruit drinks to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Life magazine.
Corbis, founded in 1989, buys the rights to famous images and digitizes them, a process that turns the images into data that computers can store, transmit and display. The digitized images can then be used in educational or reference software, or transmitted through wire services for newspaper and magazine publication.
Gates, who recently acquired a famous Leonardo da Vinci sketchbook, also wanted the images so that they can be displayed on the giant video screens that line the walls of his mansion near Seattle.
Corbis already has non-exclusive rights to distribute images from such collections as the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and of many individual photographers. But acquiring the Bettman Archive outright gives it far more control over how the images it contains are ultimately used.
The $500-million photo archive industry in the United States is converting its file cabinets of photos and images to digital data because much of the production that goes into publishing a magazine or newspaper these days takes place on computers, said Steve Davis, Corbis vice president of business and legal affairs.
"It's easier to sort and send images in that way," he said. "And it's good for conservation." With the purchase, Corbis becomes one of the biggest commercial archives of historical photos, Davis said.
The Bettmann Archive will remain in New York and keep its management staff, including Herbert Gstalder as director, the companies said. "We will be looking together how to use new technologies to enhance both collections, how to complement each other's collections and how to market them more aggressively," Davis said.
Davis said Corbis will use on-line technology to enhance delivery of both companies' images to customers and that it will focus on commercial customers through its Corbis Media licensing division and on consumers through its Corbis Publishing division, which makes CD-ROMs.