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Corbis Corporation
Industry Digital licensing and rights services
Founded 1989
Headquarters Seattle, Washington, USA
Owner Bill Gates[1]
Slogan Start Here

Corbis is a Seattle, Washington-based licensing agency. Founded by Bill Gates in 1989 as Interactive Home Systems, with a goal to serve as a distributor of artwork for the prospective concept of digital art frames in homes, the company, later re-named Corbis, focused more intensely on the acquisition and preservation of historic images, and a general photo and footage licensing business. The company also expanded into the entertainment advertising market, as well as providing rights clearance and personality rights management services.

In January 2016, Corbis announced that it would sell its image licensing businesses to Visual China Group. VCG will, in turn, license the images to Getty Images outside of China.

Lines of business[edit]

Image licensing and search[edit]

The company's collection includes contemporary creative, editorial, entertainment, and historical photography as well as art and illustrations. Among its acquisitions are the 11 million piece Bettmann Archive, acquired in 1995; the Sygma collection in France (1999); and the German stock image company ZEFA (2005). Corbis also has the rights to digital reproduction for art from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London.[2]

Corbis Entertainment[edit]

The Corbis Entertainment division encompasses services to the entertainment industry, including the product placement agency Branded Entertainment Network, the celebrity photo agency Splash,[3] as well as GreenLight, an online service that assists users in licensing images, music, video, and personality rights for commercial use.[4] It also directly represents the personality rights of various figures, including Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Bruce Lee, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Martin Luther King, Jr. Marvin Gaye, Muhammad Ali, Steve McQueen, and Thomas Edison among others.[5][6][7]



Corbis is privately owned by Bill Gates, who founded the company in 1989 under the name Interactive Home Systems. Interactive Home Systems presented itself as an art licensing company; Gates envisioned a system in which users would decorate their homes with revolving displays of artwork, including works by notable painters, using digital frames and technology that had yet to have been developed.[8] The company's name was changed to Continuum Productions in 1992 and later, to Corbis Corporation.[9] Interactive television was suggested as a way to deliver the content, but as the development of the planned product was under way, Corbis focused on digitizing content and acquiring rights to images. Corbis signed agreements with the National Gallery of London, the Library of Congress, the Sakamoto Archive, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.[9]

In October 1995, the company purchased the Bettmann Archive collection, which included the pre-1983 photo library of United Press International and its predecessor photo agencies, Acme and INP, the photo arm of the International News Service. Prior to acquiring the Bettmann Archive, Corbis represented roughly 500,000 images, a total that increased exponentially when the Bettmann drawings, artworks, news photographs, and other illustrations were added to the company's portfolio. In all the Bettmann Archive contained 16 million images.[10] The archive was stored 220 feet underground in a refrigerated cave in the Iron Mountain storage facility,[11]

In 1995 the company won a contract with its first major photographer, Roger Ressmeyer, followed by several more, including Galen Rowell; this signalled growing interest in the world of professional photography, which up to that point had not taken the company seriously.[9] In 1996 the company acquired the exclusive rights to approximately 40,000 images photographed by wilderness photographer Ansel Adams.[12]

In 1997, Corbis named company veterans, Steve Davis and Tony Rojas, co-CEOs. Corbis also hired David Rheins to run Corbis' Productions, and Leslie Hughes to lead the company's B2B image licensing division, Corbis Images.[13] These hires marked the company's shift to a more market focused entity. Corbis Productions published several award-winning CD-ROM titles such as A Passion for Art: Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Dr. Barnes, compiled from the Barnes Foundation collection, and Leonardo da Vinci, which showcased the Codex Leicester.[14]

In 1998, Leslie Hughes was named President of Corbis Images. The company expanded internationally and through product development and further acquisitions. The company acquired Digital Stock Corp., a supplier of royalty-free images to further expand its offering.[15] In 1998, another division was added to Corbis Images when the company acquired Outline Press Syndicate, Inc., a supplier of celebrity portrait photography. Renamed Corbis Outline, the company syndicated studio portraits and candid photographs of actors, musicians, athletes, politicians, business leaders, scientists, and other celebrities and provided the images for sale to a broad range of national magazines.[16]

In June 1999, the company acquired the French news photo agency Sygma, adding 40 million additional images to the company's collection, and expanding Corbis's portfolio beyond 65 million images. The archive is today stored in a preservation and access facility outside Paris.[17]


Corbis's business-to-business image licensing business expanded with the growth of the Internet in the early part of the decade. The company also expanded geographically, making multiple acquisitions such as the Stock Market[18] and expanding into the footage licensing market with the acquisition of Sekani.

  • In 2000, after the company's dramatic growth in the professional licensing business, Corbis named Leslie Hughes President of the newly consolidated Markets and Products Group (CMPG). The new group represented the consolidation of formerly separate business units, professional licensing and business communicator (small office).[19]
  • In 2001 Corbis built a state-of-the-art preservation facility in western Pennsylvania to house the renowned Bettmann Archive. Corbis committed to preserving the collection for generations to come, and to allow continued access to this extraordinary collection.[20]
  • In late 2002, Leslie Hughes stepped down as President of Corbis' Markets and Products Group. Steve Davis was named as sole CEO, and Tony Rojas was appointed the company's President.
  • In 2005, the company expanded further into Europe with the acquisition of zefa,[21] and into Australia in 2006, with the acquisition of Australian Picture Library.[22]
  • In April 2007, the company announced it was naming new leadership. Steve Davis stepped down as CEO, and Gary Shenk was named as the new CEO as of July 1.[8][23] Shenk oversaw aggressive cost-cutting efforts to improve the company’s financial performance and address the rise of low-cost competitors. The company experienced several waves of layoffs for the next several years, shed non-profitable lines of business and reduced its number of offices globally.
  • In November 2007, Corbis announced that it would be purchasing Veer and would continue to operate it as a separate brand.[24]
  • In early June 2007, Corbis announced that it was creating a microstock website, SnapVillage. The company said it intended to use its microstock site as a farm club to find photographers who could also sell their photographs on the main Corbis Web site. In late June, the company launched SnapVillage, with about 10,000 images initially viewable. SnapVillage was closed due to low sales in early 2009 and rolled into Veer.
  • Corbis rebranded its Rights Services Division, previously a Division of Corbis Images, as "GreenLight" in 2008.[25]
  • In May 2009, Corbis opened the Sygma Preservation and Access Facility outside Paris, France, housing tens of millions of photographic elements from the past half century in Europe.[26] The company in 2009 also re-launched its Corbis Motion website with hundreds of thousands of new video clips, after signing a new partnership with Thought Equity Motion.[27]
  • In 2010, Corbis increased its focus on serving web and mobile customers, with the introduction of low-resolution file sizes images that were more affordable for Web and Mobile use.[27] Corbis also relaunched its website with a greater focus on affordable images and fonts to compete more effectively against low cost competitors.[28]
  • In 2010, Corbis was found to have committed fraud against Infoflows Corporation.[1][29]
  • In this decade, Corbis has discussed its financial direction in moving towards profitability multiple times without success.[30][31][32]


  • In January 2011, Shirley Jones sued Corbis alleging the company violated her publicity rights, and seeking class-action status for other celebrities.[33] The case was thrown out in June 2011, with the court forcing Jones to pay Corbis's legal fees and other costs. [34]
  • July 2011—Five Photographers take Corbis to court for misuse of corporate assets in closing Corbis Sygma.[35]
  • July 2011—Corbis acquires Splash Media, a Los Angeles-based firm that deals in celebrity photography.[3]
  • August 2011—Corbis and the Associated Press announce a distribution deal to try to reach each other's customers for current and archival photographs. Corbis' collection includes the library of onetime AP-rival UPI, acquired in the purchase of Bettmann.[36]
  • January 2012—Corbis acquires the product placement agency Norm Marshall Group.[37]
  • May 2012—Washington State Appellate Court upholds jury verdict that Corbis committed fraud.[38][39]
  • Nov 2012—Corbis expands global media footprint and acquires breaking news photojournalism newswire, Demotix, following successful investment and global distribution partnership.[40]
  • Jan 2013—Washington State Appellate Court Makes ruling on Lodis Vs. Shenk (Corbis Holdings) Appeal—In 2007 after Gary Shenk became CEO, he fired Mr. Lodis, the Chief Human Resources Officer. Mr. Lodis filed a discrimination case against Corbis where Mr. Shenk had made ongoing comments "indicating his preference for younger workers. He talked about older workers being "out of touch," "an old-timer," "grandmotherly," or "the old guy on [the] team". After the appeal, the Appellate court revised some rulings, while concurring on others.[41]

2016: Sale of image licensing business[edit]

On January 22, 2016, Corbis announced that it had sold its image licensing business, including the Corbis Images, Corbis Motion and Veer libaries and their associated assets, to Unity Glory, a subsidiary of Visual China Group. The sale does not include the Corbis Entertainment business, which will remain owned by the company under a new name. Concurrently, it was announced that VCG would exclusively license international distribution (outside of China) of the Corbis images library to its rival, Getty Images. VCG has historically served as the exclusive distributor of Getty content in China.[5] Distribution of Corbis content will be transitioned to Getty's outlets, while the company will also manage Corbis's physical archives on behalf of VCG. Of the deal, Getty CEO Jonathan Klein remarked that after 21 years in business, it was "lovely to get the milk, the cream, cheese, yogurt and the meat without buying the cow."[6][42]

This has proved to be a controversial business decision, as Contributors had received no prior warning as to the sale, nor notification as to the status of their Licensing Rights during the transition period. In a further massive Public Relations fail, Corbis Images' Demotix did not notify their Contributors until January 28, 2016.

The Demotix office in London, U.K. sent a mass email mailing to all of its contributors and photographers announcing the sale of Corbis to Visual China Group. The body of the e-mail read, "Last week Corbis announced the sale of the Corbis Images (excluding Splash), Corbis Motion, and Veer licensing businesses to Unity Glory International, an affiliate of the Visual China Group (VCG), a leading Chinese visual communications and new media business. In addition to the Corbis and Veer content, VCG has also purchased the Demotix brand and content. Currently the Demotix website is redirecting Demotix visitors to VCG will communicate next steps with Demotix contributors as soon as possible."

Also, over that following weekend in January 2016, Corbis Images' Demotix website was shut down with all of its story and image links re-directing solely to the main Corbis Images website. This resulted in the contributors and users losing access to the images, description, sales and moneys owed. Additionally, due to the independent Citizen Journalist nature of Demotix, some Contributors stated online they were not happy that the site had been sold to China, in particular in reference to the Chinese Government's human rights past with Tiananmen Square protests and the Dalai Lama.


  1. ^ a b Lohr, Steve (18 Jul 2010). "In a Partnership of Unequals, a Start-Up Suffers". New York Times. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  2. ^ Katie Hafner, A Photo Trove, a Mounting Challenge, The New York Times, April 10, 2007.
  3. ^ a b "Corbis buys L.A. firm that specializes in celebrity photos". Seattle Times. Retrieved 26 January 2016. 
  4. ^ "Corbis Simplifies Music Licensing With GreenLight Launch". Billboard. Retrieved 26 January 2016. 
  5. ^ a b "Bill Gates’ Corbis Images Sold to Visual China Group". Variety. Retrieved 26 January 2016. 
  6. ^ a b "Corbis sale to Chinese company may be boon to Getty". Seattle Times. 22 January 2016. Retrieved 26 January 2016. 
  7. ^ "GreenLight Adds Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash To Rights Roster". Billboard. Retrieved 26 January 2016. 
  8. ^ a b Hafner, Katie (10 April 2007). "A Photo Trove, a Mounting Challenge". New York Times. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c Richard Rapaport for Wired UK. Issue 2.11 - November 1996 In His Image
  10. ^ Jesse Birnbaum; David Bjerklie; Patrick E. Cole (23 Oct 1995). "HISTORY: GATES SNAPS TOP PIX". Time. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  11. ^ Haynes, Gary. "UNDER IRON MOUNTAIN Corbis Stores "Very Important Photographs" At Zero Degrees Fahrenheit" (PDF). National Press Photographer's Association. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  12. ^ Lohr, Steve (2 Apr 1996). "Gates Acquires Rights To Adams Photo Images". New York Times. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  13. ^ "Industry leaders join Corbis to meet growing demand for visual content". BNET. 1997. Retrieved 2014-06-15. 
  14. ^ Teather, David (8 Feb 2005). "The software billionaire's $170m sideline". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  15. ^ "Gates' Corbis Archive Acquires Digital Stock". The Seattle Times. 3 February 1998. 
  16. ^ "Outline Press Joins Corbis; Premier Celebrity Image Provider Joins Forces With Market Leader Corbis to Create World's Most Extensive Celebrity Portrait Business". Business Wire. 14 Jul 1998. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  17. ^ Balean, John (15 May 2009). "PAN Special Report: The Sygma Preservation and Access Facility". Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  18. ^ "Corbis Acquires The Stock Market Photo Agency". 22 Mar 2000. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  19. ^ "Hughes to Lead Newly Consolidated Markets and Products Group". 
  20. ^ "Corbis Opens New Film Preservation Center that Rescues and Preserves Access to America's Most Famous Images" (PDF). 
  21. ^ "Corbis Acquires Zefa, Third-Largest Image Licensing Company in the World". 4 Jan 2005. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  22. ^ Ferrone, Chris (3 Oct 2006). "Corbis acquires Australian Picture Library". Archived from the original on January 4, 2011. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  23. ^ "Corbis Announces New Leadership Team". Archived from the original on December 2, 2005. 
  24. ^ "Corbis Acquires Veer". Archived from the original on September 29, 2011. 
  25. ^ "Corbis Rebrands as "GreenLight" and signs Steve McQueen licensing deals". License! Global. 24 Jun 2008. Archived from the original on July 24, 2011. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  26. ^ "Corbis Opens Sygma Preservation And Access Facility". DesignTAXI. 18 May 2009. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  27. ^ a b Phelps, Brent (21 Jan 2009). "Corbis partners with Thought Equity Motion". Archived from the original on April 29, 2011. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  28. ^ "Veer's New Website Equals Simpler Shopping, More Affordable Images & Fonts". 14 Jul 2010. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  29. ^ Buley, Taylor (19 Jul 2010). "Start-Up Goes Public On Corbis Fraud, Starring Bill Gates". Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  30. ^ Ferrone, Chris, ""Corbis reports on 2005 Financial Performance", About the Image, March 2006 Archived May 26, 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ Ando, Ritsuko, ""Corbis on Verge of Profitablity", Reuters Media Summit, November, 2007
  32. ^ "Corbis and Costco - See paragraph 4 about profitability", Weiss, Debra, December, 2010
  33. ^ David Walker, "[1] PDN, Jan 2011
  34. ^ Walker, David. "Celebrity Smackdown: Walking the Red Carpet Is Consent, Judge Says". PDN. Retrieved 2 December 2015. 
  35. ^ La Lettre "[2] La Lettre, July 2011
  36. ^ Aug 23, 2011 - 6:00PM (2011-08-23). "The AP And Corbis Combine Image Libraries In Distribution Deal — paidContent". Archived from the original on November 24, 2011. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  37. ^ New York Times "* January 2012 : New York Times, January 2012
  38. ^ John Cook, Bill Gates-owned Corbis faces $12.75M in damages in fraud case, GeekWire, May 16, 2012.
  39. ^ Natalie Apostolou, Gates' Corbis busted again for fraud, The Register, May 16, 2012.
  40. ^
  41. ^ Appellate Court Ruling, Jan 2013.
  42. ^ "The Decade-Long Image Licensing War Is Suddenly Over". Time. Retrieved 26 January 2016. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 47°36′12″N 122°20′00″W / 47.603365°N 122.333354°W / 47.603365; -122.333354