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At first glance the room could be one at any tech company full of young people working on computers. But it’s nearly dark inside. And every computer screen displays a different photographic image: Elton John in pink plumage. A 1950s dance contest. A Civil War-era print. Several $100,000 scanners whir away in the corners. Oh, and the entire operation is owned by Bill Gates. “Pretty cool, huh?” grins David Green, senior corporate counsel for Corbis Corporation. The Bellevue, Wash.-based company has amassed one of the world’s largest collections of photographic and fine arts images: about 70 million, 3 million of which are available online. Green, a boyish 34-year-old graduate of the University of Seattle Law School, handles intellectual property issues for Corbis. A self-described “tech geek,” he has found career nirvana at the company, where technology, media, and intellectual property collide in a way that generates plenty of legal challenges — and, increasingly, money. The company has made plenty of waves, and now is on the verge of making a profit: two things its owner has perfected. Corbis began life in 1987 as International Home Systems, a Gates enterprise charged with developing technology for distributing and displaying images. Gates saw a market in its infancy and, says Green, the company “knocked on museum doors” to create and license digital galleries from their collections. By 1996 the name had morphed, and so had its mission. Now called Corbis, its goal was to build a huge collection of photographic and fine arts images and license their use to news outlets, advertisers, individual consumers, and corporate clients. The first step: buying the 11-million-photo Bettmann Archive. Corbis has preserved the collection, a trove that spans 100 years of photojournalism, from Matthew Brady’s original Civil War photos to pictures of the Civil Rights movement, in a Cold War-era underground storage facility in rural Pennsylvania. Since then, Corbis has bought the stock photo agencies Sigma and Saba and acquired the rights to Ansel Adams’s famed black-and-white photos of the West. The company also has drawn fire from purists for digitally altering its historic and archival photos in the name of restoration and accuracy. Green says the teams in the darkened rooms are merely doing what’s done in traditional darkrooms: making the pictures look the way they’re supposed to, but using Adobe Photoshop software instead of chemicals. Strolling around Corbis headquarters, Green spoke with Corporate Counselreporter Daniel A. Shaw about this issue, Bill Gates, and the future of intellectual property. CORBIS AND HIS CAREER Corporate Counsel:How does Corbis make money? David Green:Customers pay a minimum of $40 for multiple uses of an image. We license for well into the six figures often, for celebrity photos or even commercial stock photography. And we recently sold an image for $135,000. We’ll be profitable this year or next year. CC:What makes Corbis different from just a high-tech stock agency? Why should people pay a premium for using your images? Green:Whatever we do here adds value to the images. It costs us about $250 an image from when it comes in to when it’s cleaned up and ready to go out. We have a lot of highly trained, highly educated folks; we’ve designed an in-house cataloging system; we developed a keywording system; we have research libraries. Images come in and they’re beautiful, but they’re stupid. They can’t tell us their history. We have to do that. CC:How do you spend most of your time? Green:I’m either writing something or answering questions. I have to spot issues, review contracts, create licensing agreements. CC:What kinds of intellectual property cases do you defend? Green:There’s a lot of copyright cases that arise because of the nature of the archive. Some are pretty easy. ‘I took the photograph back in 1930.’ And you have to go through the exercise of how did you publish it, did you register the copyright? You have to have an in-depth knowledge of the history of the photo. There’s a lot of investigation involved, and that’s fun. CC:How did working in the Washington attorney general’s office prepare you for this job? Green:Actually, as an assistant attorney general, I was in-house counsel for the University of Washington on IP issues. It was a great job. No other state that I’m aware of has an expert in IP. But it makes sense. The university makes over $20 million a year in revenue from its patent and copyright portfolios. And students are always doing things that challenge the frontiers of law. FOCUSING ON THE ISSUES CC:Are issues surrounding the use of images becoming murkier? Green:Definitely. In the old days there were clear guidelines about when an image could be used. Now you can take the same material and offer it across a broad spectrum of uses. The line between news, criticism, and commentary is becoming grayer. And the line between entertainment and commercialism is now extremely gray. CC:What is the biggest challenge you face in the rights area? Green:The issue of third-party rights. We say that if the end use of an image is fair, then the distribution of it is fair. A lot of news media used to produce their own material. That’s not true anymore. Most of the news media license material from some third party. While it’s always been clear that the media’s use of material is permitted, it’s been less clear, although we believe it is under law, that the act of supplying [an image to a third party] for uses that are fair or that are protected have the same protections. CC:How do you protect the rights of the photographers — and your own rights — especially when it comes to the Internet? Green:We go to great lengths to protect our sources’ rights, and we have an owner known for defending intellectual property rights. We spend tens of millions of dollars a year tracking images and the rights associated with them. We work closely with the [U.S.] copyright office and got them to relax rules for registering photos. The real challenge, and Napster is an example, is the courts’ and the public’s attitude about what copyright law should mean, given that access and distribution are no longer an issue. Back in the old days, until tape cassettes came along, you had vinyl. It wasn’t portable; you couldn’t easily duplicate it. When tape cassettes came along, from a copyright perspective it was pretty clear what people could and couldn’t do. But somehow it didn’t seem to harm the industry. In fact, it opened up a new channel, a new market, both for the manufacturers of tapes and for the artists. The Internet is different, because it substitutes ease of access, such that if everybody’s doing it and everybody’s using it, the value associated with that work potentially drops. And the respect that people have for that work — they may like the work, but the respect that people have for the rights of the author drops because it’s free. CC:What, if any, other parallels do you see between Corbis and Napster? Green:Not too many. Napster and some other companies had a business model that said, let’s do something, just because it could be done. Let’s trade music files because we can. We started with a better business model. We did file a case that we call the “image Napster” case, though. A company named Webshots allows users to set up a photo album, upload any images they want, and share the images — which include a lot of ours. Vendors behind the scenes make prints of these images. With a couple of clicks and a credit card we were able to obtain, for about $1, one of our best-selling Corbis prints that we sell for about $30. Photographers aren’t happy about it, because they chose Corbis for distribution, and they aren’t getting compensated. And a lot of photographers restrict us from offering their work directly to consumers. TOWARD A NEW MODEL CC:What do you think the future holds for IP rights and your business? Green:I believe we’re moving toward a market where the real issue is about an efficient, quick manner of exchanging information that’s profitable for all. I think we’ll see an enterprise or rights exchange that will be easy, like [online auction house] eBay [Inc.]. CC:Why is something like that really necessary? Green:Magazines and other professional users spend an inordinate amount of time “papering” IP. There needs to be a platform for getting those rights downloaded. CC:What is your relationship with Microsoft? Do they get to use images freely or receive any other special treatment? Green:Microsoft is like any other customer. We have clients that compete with Microsoft, and we were never intended to be a part of it. The image business is very different from the software business, and it would be tough to integrate our material into their offerings. CC:You’re constantly surrounded by fantastic images. Who are your favorite photographers? Green:I like William Wegman, who shoots the dogs. And Buzz Erkel, who shoots America through a really strange lens. CC:So is copyright law outdated in the digital age? Green:I don’t think copyright law is stale. I think it’s more relevant — and necessary — now than ever, because the product now is the intellectual property, not the thing it’s attached to.
Career Snapshot
Name:David Green
Position:Senior corporate counsel, Corbis Corporation
Previous Job:Washington state attorney general’s office: in-house counsel, assistant attorney general
Headquarters:Bellevue, Wash.
Employees:1,300
Sales in 2000:$110 million
Law Department:Four lawyers
Primary Outside Counsel:Merchant & Gould; Preston Gates & Ellis; Dorsey & Whitney; Lane Powell Spears & Lubersky
Main Competitor:Getty Images, Inc.

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