Getting Information From Corbis

Posted on 10/5/2001 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



October 5, 2001

What's happening at Corbis? Getting accurate information isn't always easy. Yet, given the
impact Corbis policies have on the stock photo industry, everyone involved in stock

photography, not just Corbis photographers, is interested in the company's plans and

Getty Images is required to publicly disclose a great deal of information about their
operations, but there are no such requirements for Corbis, a privately owned company. Much
of what I learn about Corbis comes from conversations with photographers or customers. Often
these individual anecdotes may not be representative. Consequently, I try to restrict my
reporting to those issues that are repeated many times from a number of different sources,
or from my personal observations.

Recently, I received a call for Patrick Donehue, VP of Commercial Photography at Corbis, who indicated
that some of the things I have been saying about Corbis (there were no specifics) were not
accurate. He wanted to know if I would like to interview him so he could set the record
straight about Corbis. I quickly agreed as I am always interested in printing both sides of
a story in order to provide balance and perspective.

It was agreed that I would submit questions in advance of the interview. Shortly, after this
agreement I got an e-mail from Patrick saying that CEO, Steve Davis wanted to participate in
the interview, and asking if we could delay it for a week until Steve returned from an
overseas trip. I readily agreed.

I saw this as an opportunity to get an official position on a lot of issues which have been
discussed throughout the industry, and about which rumors are rampant. I prepared a long
list of questions and sent them to Patrick. Strategically, this was probably a mistake. The
questions are outlined below.

After about a week I received a call from Patrick saying that they would be unable to answer
ANY of my questions because I have a conflict of interest in that I am an expert witness in
the case of Michael Grecco vs. Corbis Sygma.

Mr. Grecco is an editorial photographer who is suing Corbis Sygma over the loss of more than
2,500 of his transparencies. Over a year ago I was asked by his attorney to review Michael's
work and provide a basis for valuing the lost images. Of course, Corbis has their own expert
who will challenge my opinion. In June of 2000, I submitted a report of my findings and am
waiting for the case to either be settled or go to trial. Patrick indicated that until this
case is settled he has been advised by counsel not to answer any of my questions -- even the
most benign or those where I might have made a clear error in fact.

Patrick indicated that the ban on providing information to Selling Stock may be lifted once
the case is settled. He also assured me that Corbis will provide THEIR PHOTOGRAPHERS with
answers to the issues I raised. He implied that most of their photographers already has
satisfactory answers to most of the questions I asked, although that is not what I have
found from the photographers who are talking to me.

I would suggest that Corbis photographers seek explanations of the issues outlined in my
questions, if they have not already received satisfactory answers.

I report this so my readers will recognize that based on this decision by Corbis I will be
unable, for the foreseeable future, to check the accuracy of information other sources
provide to me relative to Corbis.

Jim Pickerell



I'll be happy to wait until Steve Davis gets back. I can probably work around whatever time
works for the two of you. Here are some of my questions. There may be more. Some of these
definitely require a discussion format to answer, but many only require answers that are
simple and straight forward. And I'm sure there will be some things that you won't answer
for competitive reasons (I hope not too many).

I would suggest that you answer as many of the simple, straight forward points as possible
via e-mail before we have a telephone conference. Also tell me which issues you're not
willing to discuss. This should make any telephone conversation we have more productive, and
insure that I won't misquote you.

If you want to answer some of these things for background, not for attribution, that's fine
with me. Just tell me when I can't quote you.


1 - Please explain the process of integration of the various brands as it now stands. When
is that process expected to be complete?
Which brands are totally integrated right now and which ones only partially?

2 - Is Patrick responsible for editorial content as well as commercial content? If not, who

3 - What is the current staff size?

4 - I understand that Jim Roehrig is on a 3 month leave of absence. Is he expected to return
to Corbis after that leave? I also understand that Roehrig still owns the assignment
division of Outline separate from Corbis, so I am only asking about his involvement as it
relates to the stock use of the Outline images.

5 - Based on the reports I get from photographers, I believe that the vast majority of
Corbis revenue comes from images that would be considered "classic stock". The subjects may
need to be regularly updated, and shot in a more "modern, contemporary" way, but the very
edgy material that represents a huge share of what is in many popular industry catalogs
today is not selling well, according to what photographers tell me. It is my belief that
this "edgy" material represents no more than 10% - 15% of your commercial revenue. Is this
what you are finding from the analysis of your file?

(I don't deny that there is a need for the "edgy" material as it may draw customers to your
web site, and all photographers benefit from your using these images in promotion. Since
photographers will not be paying for catalog space under your new contract it is a less
important issue to the photographers if these images do not sell.)

Photographer Contract

6 - What percentage of Sharpshooter photographers have not signed the Corbis contract? I
have been told by some Sharpshooter photographers that over 90% have not signed the new
Does Corbis plan to do anything to make the contract more palatable? Is this the same
contract that Stock Market photographers will be asked to sign? Have any CSM photographers
signed the new Corbis contract at this time? If so, what percentage of them?

7 - Some months ago the photographers with Sharpshooters and WestLight submitted a document
called "Point by Point" to Corbis.
This outlined various issues of photographer concern relative to the new Corbis contract.
(Corbis' response to these questions is also being watched closely by CSM photographer.)
Have all the concerns outlined in that documents been dealt with? Is the existing contract
that is posted on your web site Corbis' final position on each of these points? (Some
photographers seem to be uncertain as to whether the current version is open to
modifications, or not.)

8 - I understand that many TSM and Sharpshooter photographers have jointly hired a lawyer to
negotiate some changes in the Corbis contract. How is that process proceeding? Have the
photographers defined all their issues, or does that still seem to be in the process? When
do you expect to have a document that most photographers will sign?

9 - What do you believe are the principle reasons why photographers (mostly from
Sharpshooters) have left Corbis? How are you re-adjusting the contract and your operating
procedures to deal with these issues?

10 - Some photographers say that the most significant change that is needed in the contract
is the ability to leave Corbis with one's work if one is unhappy. Greg Pease, for example,
(See item 18) has few images online. He was forced to spend a huge amount of work on
retouching that Corbis was unwilling to do. Corbis is not selling the work as he had every
right to expect. He believes the images would sell better somewhere else. Yet, he is locked
into a long term contract.

I'm sure he would prefer for Corbis to market his images effectively so both he and Corbis
could earn some money, but if Corbis is unwilling or unable to do that, can he leave and
take his images elsewhere? If photographers can leave when Corbis is not doing a good job
for them, then a lot of the other contract issues become moot. But the way it is the
photographer is locked into an eight year deal before he or she knows what Corbis will be
able to deliver. Many seem unwilling to make such a commitment.

Making it easy for photographers to get out of the contract when it is not working for
either party would certainly increase the level of photographer trust and provide an
indications that Corbis is willing to do their part to make sure the relationship is a good
one. Given the problems that Corbis seems unable to overcome why are you unwilling to make
this compromise?

What does Corbis get by holding a photographer against his will? Are the resulting bad
feelings, which will certainly be heard by many other photographers, worth it? If sales are
not being made, what is the value of that work to Corbis?

Searching On The Site

When I do comparative searches for commercial subject matter on the both the Corbis Images
site and the CSM site, the Corbis site is unbelievably bad. When I go to the "professional
section," click on "traditional licensing" and then try to search on businessman,
businessmen, business people and executive. I get 5179 hits for man, 4497 hits for men, 2626
for people and 4669 for executive. I have no explanation for why man and men don't get
pretty close to the same number of hits. People should include women, but it doesn't even
include all the men.

Worse yet, the first hundred or so, is nearly all outdated stuff, not appropriate for
commercial advertising sales. At the very least, why isn't this material at the bottom of
the pile instead of the top.

I will admit that I get a better selection when I search for "business executive". I guess
the key is that the user needs to know which word to use. Of course, any beginner knows that
is not the way keywording is suppose to work.

I am impressed that you make so many sales despite this difficulty in finding images on your
site. This seems to be a testament to the buyers perseverance. This raises a number of

11 - It appears that the first images that were put on the site come up first. Is that the
case? Many other sites are organized in reverse order so the last images to be added are the
first ones to come up. If you can't set some type of image-by-image priority then it seems
that the next best thing would be to have the last images added come up first. I know this
has been suggested time and time again by suppliers from before the time Corbis acquired
Westlight. Why has nothing been done? Why is this not a satisfactory solution? What makes it
impossible to change? There has been at least one major re-programming of the web site in
the last two or three years that was suppose to solve some of these problems and nothing has
changed. When can photographers expect the site to work more efficiently?

12 - Ever since Corbis acquired Westlight, photographers have been told that improving the
web site was "Job 1". Corbis has made a number of cosmetic changes to the basic interface,
but none of these have dealt with the basic infrastructure problem. Why should photographers
have confidence that you are going to get it right with the next change?

13 - Do you believe buyers will put up with any difficulty in order to find images? Is there
some other explanation for why you are making so many sales despite the search difficulties?
Are your staff researchers responsible for a major portion of the sales?

14 - My guess is that most of your commercial sales are made through the CSM site, rather
than the Corbis Images site because all the good commercial images are buried on the Corbis
Images site. Is that the case? If it is the case, what is going to bring about a change?
Will you take the commercially oriented images that are on the Corbis Images site and
integrate them into the CSM site?

15 - What percentage of commercial (non-editorial) sales result from the customers finding
the images on the CorbisStockMarket site as compared with the Corbis site? If a huge
percentage are found by searching the CorbisStockMarket site, and that site is about to be
shut down, shouldn't photographers be worried?

16 - When the final integration occurs between Corbis and CSM which technology will remain?
Will the Corbis site be integrated into the current CSM technology or the other way around?

17 - Lots of the new imagery that photographers are being pushed to shoot has a very short
useful life due to style changes. This makes it critical to get the images up online
quickly. Photographers tell me it has been taking 4 to 5 months to get new work up online.
What is the average time now? I know you are suppose to be adding scanning and keywording
capabilities. What is your goal for how quickly new images will be up online after they are

18 - Greg Pease has 12 photos that illustrate ports and shipping on Corbis. In the last 8
months he has made no sales of these images. From similar images on the Stone and FPG sites
and in the Getty marketing program he makes well over $1000 a month and has consistently
received that kind of money since he first put port pictures with Stone in the early 90's.
The pictures on the Corbis site have all their logos removed and are shot in a way that
makes them totally generic, not identifying the port of the shipping company. Why can Getty
sell such pictures and Corbis can't? Is it because the images are buried on the Corbis site
where no one can easily find them?

Why isn't the site better edited? Why aren't images shown in reverse order with the newest
images to be put on the site coming up first, instead of the oldest images being shown
first? This totally defeats your more recent tighter editing and reduces the effectiveness
of the efforts you have made in the last few years to get more commercial images and images
of a higher quality on the site.

19 - In the case of the Greg Pease images it was important to digitally remove all the logos
in the port pictures to make them marketable. In addition Pease had made a commitment to the
Port of Baltimore that all logos would be removed in order to get the cooperation necessary
to produce the images. The images were first put on the site without removal of logos in
violation of the instructions given to Corbis by Pease. Finally, Pease took the scans and
had the logos removed at extra expense to him (when Corbis staff was too busy to do the
work). Even then the pictures didn't sell because they were still buried. Is Corbis prepared
to do any special digital work on images to help make images more marketable?

20 - Recently I was having a discussion with Jon Feingersh on the importance of keywording.
Other photographers have told me that often images don't get keyworded very well. I pressed
Jon to see if he could give me an example and he pointed me in the direction of his image
MI-064-0303 (on the CSM site, not the Corbis Images site). He had created a concept image of
a woman with a long nose like Pinocchio and she had scissors ready to chop it off. The idea
of the image was to symbolize lying or to lie. Neither word was used as a keyword. Also the
keywords "cut off nose," "Pinocchio," "don't be nosey" or "crossed eyes" were not used. This
image will never be found for the purpose it was intended. Maybe the keyworder never heard
of Pinocchio. Who is monitoring the keywording? Is it necessary for photographers to
recommend keywords for all their images -- particularly their concept images? Are you
willing to take keyword suggestions from photographers? If the photographer has to do the
keywording in addition to producing the image shouldn't that entitle him to a higher

Print Catalogs

21 - A recent CSM survey indicates that buyers want small more frequent catalogs instead of
the bigger catalogs that have been produced in the last few years. This seems to be in
direct opposition to a CSM survey done a year ago just before Richard Steedman left. Has the
market made such a dramatic shift in just 12 months? Some CSM photographers are questioning
the validity of this information. How many buyers were questioned? How many responded?

22 - It has been pointed out that the new catalog strategy will produce more catalogs that
position the brand rather than sell specific images. It is also pointed out that this should
make little difference to individual photographers as long as they are not paying for
catalog space.

Under the new Corbis contract photographer are not required to pay for catalog placement.
But, many of the CSM photographers have not yet signed the new contract and under their old
TSM contracts they are required to pay catalog fees. If a new catalog comes out, and a
photographer has still not signed the new Corbis contract will that photographer be required
to pay catalog fees? If some photographers will be paying and some will not, how will the
costs be allocated?

Royalty Free

23 - I understand that you are in the process of restructuring your RF division. Why is the
old RF business model "fatally flawed", a term that I've heard Corbis staff has used when
talking to photographers? Explain the "new model" and how it will solve the problems?

24 - Is one of the reasons for changing the RF strategy that RF sales are beginning to
plateau? What is it about the strategy change that will revitalize the sales?

25 - How much has the fact that individual images sales are up and disc sales are down (thus
reducing the average fee per transaction)
been responsible for the falloff in RF revenue? Is the expected total migration to
individual image sales the reason why the RF model must be changed?

26 - I estimate that RF sales represent about 20% of Corbis' sales. Is that correct?

27 - I understand that you now have two production/editing departments for RF. One is the
CSM editing team in New York and the other is a team headed by Robin Selman in Seattle. Is
that correct?
Is there still an editing/production team in Los Angeles, or have all of these operations
now been consolidated into one team in Seattle? If there is anything in LA are there
separate groups for Westlight, Sharpshooters and RF, or have they been consolidated into one
team? Since (Rick) Becker-Lechrone and (Lawrence) Manning have left, how many people do you
have available to work closely with photographers in a production capacity?

28 - What percentage of your Rights Protected photographers will be supplying images for
both RP and RF?

29 - What kind of guidelines does an editor use to determine whether an image should be
marketed as RP or RF?

30 - In the past two or three years, I believe most photographers have had the general
impression that nearly all the RF production came from a relatively few photographers that
your production team worked with very closely. The impression has been that there was no
point submitting images for RF that were already shot, because the only images that were
being accepted were ones where Corbis had detailed control of the shoot before the
production begins. I have some indication that this strategy may now be changing. Is that
true? If true, please explain why you came to this conclusion.

31 - Should photographers now be submitting work they have produced on speculation for
possible RF use?

Lloyd Promotion

Andrei Lloyd has been named Vice President of worldwide sales and market strategy of the
Creative Professional Group (CPG) of Corbis. This group is responsible for sales in both the
editorial and commercial markets which includes news, celebrity, contemporary lifestyle,
business, sports, historical and fine art, and the brands Corbis Stock Market (CSM) and
Corbis Saba and Corbis Sygma.

32 - It seems to me that Andrei Lloyd has been elevated out of his "comfort zone" of
commercial sales and given an impossible job of revitalizing the editorial sales of Saba and
Sygma. It seems to me that he has very little chance of increasing editorial sales. Saba and
Sygma's strength was always in production, not in selling stock. I don't see how you can
maintain the level of production Sygma once had (in order to have something to sell) when
publications are not giving assignment guarantees anymore.
What happens to Andrei if he doesn't meet editorial sales goals? I know at least one CSM
photographer who believes that by putting this extra responsibility on his shoulders Andrei
is being set up to fail.

I grant that the "War", which is going to be long and have a lot of feature potential, may
just possibly revitalize editorial production shooting. However, Corbis' decision to make
this move was made before you knew there was going to be a war. A lot depends on the amount
of space that can be devoted to these stories, not just how good the images are.

Can you explain to me why my above analysis if flawed? Where is the increased editorial
business going to come from? Selling editorial is also heavily involved with supporting an
analog file which is not a high priority at Corbis. I also understand that Francois Hebel
has resigned. What is Andrei going to be able to do that Hebel could not? At least Hebel had
some experience with the editorial side of the business?

Most editorial shooters believe that the only reason Corbis bought Sygma and Saba was to
mine the historical files for images, and that the company has no viable plan for how to
fund new production. Can you explain why that is not the case?

33 - Andrei is certainly going to have his hands full trying to increase both commercial and
editorial sales. Who is going to take over his job of COO of CSM?

34 - My estimates are that approximately 40% of Corbis revenue worldwide comes from sales
that are for editorial uses. (This includes not just Sygma and Saba, but most of Bettman,
Outline, LGI, etc. where the uses are editorial in nature. I also recognize that all these
brands will make some commercial and advertising uses and I'm not intending to count
commercial sales in my 40% estimate.) Is this percentage accurate?

35 - Have all Sygma and Saba operations been consolidated to the Corbis offices in New York,
London and Paris? Is all the editing done in Paris?

36 - Sygma started scanning their archives almost a decade ago. At that time everything was
scanned at 5.2 MB maximum which does not fit with current market demands. As of last August
there had been no re-scanning of the Sygma archives. Since Corbis wants to deliver online
only, what are the plans for re-scanning the archives?

Other Issues

37 - I have heard two different, creditable but conflicting stories about Corbis' future
financing. The first is that Bill Gates patience with Corbis is running very thin. He wants
to see it covering its operational costs very soon. According to this story he is willing to
put another $5 million into the company in 2002, but that is the last contribution he is
willing to make. By the beginning of 2003 it must be profitable. I know Steve Davis has said
the company will be profitable by the end of 2002, but with the current recession, is that

The other story is that Gates is still very bullish on the long range future of an image
content. As a result, he is willing to fund, whatever is necessary, for several more years
to make Corbis profitable. Which is true?

38 - Will you offer "image exclusive" contracts to CSM, Sharpshooters and Westlight

39 - There seems to some confusion about the right of "first refusal." Many Corbis
photographers think they must submit everything to Corbis before they are allowed to offer
it elsewhere. I thought that had been changed. What is your current position?
If there is still "first refusal" will you commit in the contract to a short time period
after submission so the photographer can take unaccepted work somewhere else?

40 - How quickly are images getting up online after they are submitted? (Of course, if they
are buried in the pack so no one can find them, I guess that doesn't make much difference.)

41 - Will Corbis guarantee that "accepted images" will go on the web and not be buried in a

42 - Are you going to provide any way to offer custom edits of various categories of the
file such as alamy is offering?

43 - Is it true that Corbis is moving away from the consumer market?

44 - Are you willing to narrow the definition of similars?

Copyright © 2001 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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