Mark Getty, heir to part of the Getty Oil fortune, and Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman, are hardly names you would associate with Ansel Adams or the National Gallery. Yet both have been acquiring photographic stock at a staggering pace in an effort to dominate the digital imagery market.
The battleground is an industry transformed by the digital revolution. Gone are the days of privately owned photographs manually dispatched to the client, of researchers sifting through sheet upon sheet of slides. Swift access to digital images is now guaranteed by a computerised search using specialised software. From "Hong Kong skyline" to "fear", the vaguest emotions are keyworded to fit categories that match the needs of buyers, who can now browse through Internet-based image collections 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An order can be placed online and the final image downloaded as a compressed JPEG file.
Both Getty, through his Getty Images firm, and Gates, via his Corbis business, recognised the transforming power of technology in general and the Internet in particular. Identifying the latter as a key differentiator between today's and tomorrow's business, Getty Images co-founder Jonathan Klein says: "Last year's active customer base was 120,000. Thanks to the Internet, our future potential customer base will be tens of millions."
Unlike Corbis, which was digital from conception, Getty started his empire in a mostly analogue world. After the sale in 1993 of Getty Oil, he found what he called the "highly fragmented" industry of stock photography. From their surprisingly modest London office, Getty and Klein spoke of the hectic years of bringing the pieces together.
The first in a long line of acquisitions took place in 1995, with Tony Stone, one of the world's leading stock photography names. Its pounds 28m price- tag bought Getty Images more than 1 million photos and an established distribution system. In April 1996, Getty acquired the world-famous Hulton Deutsch collection, subsequently renamed Hulton Getty. With more than 16 million images dating from the early days of photography, it is one of the two largest privately owned collections in the world.
The other is the Bettman Collection, the largest component in Bill Gates's ensemble. Since founding Corbis in 1989, Gates has been prudently asserting his position in the market. The Corbis strategy has focused on new information management and distribution technologies and the Internet. Gates invested several years creating a solid digital storage and delivery system and only in 1994 started acquiring stock.
Gates has made waves by buying up collections of historic photos with a war chest estimated at $100m, and Corbis's stock now contains more than 20 million images, all accessible via the Internet. Corbis is home to such leading collections as Ansel Adams, the Detroit Museum, the National Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and LGI, a worldwide resource for contemporary celebrity photos. And then there's the Bettman Collection's 17 million images, illustrating the entire history of mankind and currently in great demand for various millennium-based projects.
Gates's battle with Getty intensified at the beginning of this year. In February, Getty Images announced a $200m merger with the royalty-free (pay once for unlimited use) image company PhotoDisc. A week earlier Corbis had acquired Digital Stock, another leading royalty-free company - openly targeting Getty's traditional advertising and design markets. Mark Torrance, PhotoDisc chief and Getty Images co-chairman, admitted that the acquisition of Digital Stock made Corbis a direct competitor: "They've targeted us and they're entering the fray."
Royalty-free images are growing rapidly, with Web-based sales rising at a staggering rate. Commenting on this on a recent visit to London, Steve Davis, Corbis president, said: "Our focus to date, unlike Getty, has been on the editorial market. Now we are expanding into the commercial with the acquisition of Digital Stock. Getty's initial focus was on commercial with Tony Stone and now PhotoDisc, but they are extending their reach into the editorial."
Getty and Klein cautiously acknowledge the competition but are keen to highlight their company's scope. "Very few competitors are aiming to have Getty Images' breadth in terms of different kinds of imagery for different kinds of markets," says Klein.
Getty Images has also acquired Allsport, a leading sports agency, Gamma Liaison, an American news and photojournalism agency, and Energy Film, a stock footage library.
Corbis, according to Davis, consciously chose not to acquire large companies in the way that Getty has. "Instead, we have concentrated on developing easy systems that get you what you want fairly quickly across a wide range of customer spectrum," he says. "On the one hand is the heavily service- oriented environment, from newspapers to magazines all the way to the top end of graphic design - people with different requirements, prices they are willing to pay, willingness to negotiate and creative needs.
"On the other hand is Digital Stock material, which the customer buys and uses any way he or she wants. We don't do any research and the customer gets a better price," Davis explains. "We have a consumer-oriented base which in fact Getty and others don't have yet."
With increasing awareness of stock photography and business online, Getty and Gates anticipate continuing growth. "You only have to look at how imagery is used everywhere around us, whether it's magazines, television or film," says Klein. "There is a proliferation of imagery and of the ways our customers are accessing that imagery. There are more customers moving towards Web-based searches, which lead to more choices." With that in mind, Getty Images plans to make the Tony Stone collection available via a Web site, allowing customers to purchase images online by the end of the year.
As for future competition, both rivals list image quality, the Internet and customer service as potential differentiators. Downloading time remains an issue, particularly with large files, and search engines have room for enhancement. These problems will ultimately be resolved as modem technology and Internet bandwidth improve.
Using the Internet to reach new potential consumers is also high on the agenda. Getty chose a joint venture with Hewlett-Packard to target the SoHo (small office, home office) market, while Corbis introduced the consumer- oriented Print and Poster Shop and Corbis Trip, a travel-photo site.
Getty's PhotoDisc has collaborated with HP to produce a Web site providing business-themed imagery for business users. Under the deal, each HP printer sold will lead a buyer to the site, which includes a search facility and the ability to purchase and download images.
Corbis's Print and Poster Shop lets online consumers buy images directly from the Corbis Collection. Visitors to the site can even select the frame of their choice, and the framed photograph is delivered to the consumer's door.
Making the most of its Microsoft connection, Corbis Trip has an active channel on the Internet Explorer Web browser, making it immediately accessible to millions of people. It takes viewers to different places on the globe with links to other travel-related sites. Corbis also intends to utilise heavy Web traffic created by these and other sites to sell sponsorship and advertising.
Corbis's record for online innovation will continue to be a key characteristic of the company. "Our goal is to drive towards systems that have enough interesting mechanisms, creating a hassle-free experience," Davis explains. "That will be a big differentiator. We build a great collection of great images, marry them with great technology and make them available in different ways to big groups of customers. It is just a different approach [to Getty's], right or wrong. I guess the market will tell us."