Gates Company Buys Photo Collection Used In Textbook Publishing

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Textbook publishers were cautiously optimistic last week that the sale of one of their prime sources of archival photographs would have a minimal impact on their industry.

The Corbis Corp., a company owned by William H. Gates III, the co-founder and president of the Microsoft Corp., this month bought the Bettmann Archive, a collection of more than 16 million photographs, drawings, and other works, for an undisclosed sum. The company already owned nearly a half-million images, which it licenses to publications.

The purchase was viewed by some as an early sign of a trend in which electronic publishers will increasingly acquire the rights to collections that traditionally have been available only in a printed form, with the objective of obtaining the raw material to create new educational and "edutainment" software. (See page 14 of special pullout report, "Book Smart.")

Microsoft, for example, currently licenses images from both Bett-mann and Corbis for its reference products, including the multimedia cd-rom encyclopedia Encarta.

Bettmann, on the other hand, regularly licenses works in its collection to newspapers, magazines, and other print publishers, but textbook publishers are "the largest sector of our business," said Anne Rudden, a Bettmann spokeswoman. Company officials would not discuss sales figures.

Minimal Effect Seen

Spokesmen for the leading textbook publishers said it was unlikely that the acquisition would significantly affect them. "Quite frankly, from our standpoint, the only effect would be if the cost went up," said Terence Heagney, a spokesman for the Houghton Mifflin Co.

They noted, however, that as a producer of multimedia software, Corbis essentially competes with traditional textbook companies. Whether the acquisition of the valuable Bettmann collection will affect the textbook market is unknown, they said.

Bettmann will continue to operate in New York City. But Corbis, based in Bellevue, Wash., also will begin "digitizing" the collection for use in electronic media.

Herbert Gstalder, Bettmann's director, said that the acquisition by Corbis would eventually make the archival materials more widely available. Currently, Bettmann has a limited ability to reproduce images electronically, he said, but wholesale digitizing by Corbis will allow people outside of commercial publishing to more easily obtain access to the materials. Corbis will continue to charge users.

The Bettmann Archive began as the personal collection of Otto L. Bettmann, who fled Nazi Germany in 1935 with two trunks full of images on 35 mm film.

Among its 11.5 million photographs and 4.5 million assorted technical and other drawings are a wealth of well-known images--from the fiery crash of the zeppelin Hindenburg to astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the moon--many of which were captured over the years by photographers for United Press International, whose picture library Bettmann acquired in 1990.

Vol. 15, Issue 08

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