How Bill Gates's nice little sideline turned into the big picture

He'll be forever associated with Microsoft, but Bill Gates has also made his mighty presence felt as the founder of the Corbis picture agency. Ian Burrell reports

When Bill Gates was a 19- year-old student at Harvard University, he used his ready grasp of the opaque hieroglyphics of computer code to establish the company that was to make him the richest man on earth. But he has long understood the importance of pictures in taking his vision for the future consumption of media to a higher level.

With that in mind, he founded Corbis in 1989, basing it close to Microsoft in his home city of Seattle. Seventeen years later, it has an archive of more than 80 million images, which it deems the deepest and broadest collection in the world. Already, more than 4.2 million of these images are available for a price on the internet.

Through Corbis, Gates has the world's biggest collection of celebrity portraits, licensing the work of leading photographers such as Mark Seliger, James White, Martin Schoeller and David LaChappelle, and exclusive pictures of almost every conceivable magazine-cover star, from Bill Clinton to Nicole Kidman. It has acquired the Roger Richman Agency, representing the estates and photographic archives of Albert Einstein, Steve McQueen and dozens of other 20th-century icons. It owns or licenses pictures belonging to the National Gallery, Christie's, the Andy Warhol Foundation and the historic Bettmann and Hulton-Deutsch collections.

Corbis has also built up the world's biggest online collection of nature photography, and has rights to a vast array of images of fine art and architecture. Last week, it announced the acquisition of the image-licensing company Beateworks, making Gates the global leader in collections of home-interiors photography. In 2005, it mopped up the key British company image100 and the German agency Zefa, a specialist in fashion photography.

Corbis sells its pictures to advertising agencies, corporate marketing departments, entertainment companies, broadcasters and publishers. So, not only does Gates supply the software for most of our computers, he owns the rights to a good deal of the imagery we view on them as well.

Last year, Corbis increased its revenue by 34 per cent, to $228m (£130m), but despite the scale of its archive, it has some way to go in exploiting it commercially, and lags well behind its rival Getty Images, which generates three times as much income in a market that is worth $2bn (£1.1bn) a year. Gates last week promised to put Corbis at the centre of his drive to exploit the potential of internet-based digital media.

The man he has entrusted with this task is long-term confidant Steve Davis, a fluent Mandarin speaker who, 23 years ago, was one of the first Westerners to go to university in Peking, and has an MA in Chinese studies. A year ago, Corbis set up in Shanghai. It has hired some of China's leading photographers to build up its Asian portfolio, and hopes to capitalise on the explosion in advertising in China.

Davis, Corbis's president and chief executive, says that the company's position has been helped by changes in the publishing sector. "If you look at the industry worldwide, the highest ad pages are not coming from news magazines but from women's and trends magazines," he says, pointing out that lifestyle magazines are important customers for him.

And, as advertising agencies have seen their budgets cut, companies such as Corbis and Getty have moved in to supply pre-shot imagery for which intellectual property rights have already been cleared.

One area that Corbis doesn't cover is breaking-news images. "We decided to break away from that market," says Davis. "It's the most price-sensitive, low-margin, highly competitive one." So he leaves it to Reuters, with which Corbis has a partnership, and established players such as Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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