Bill Gates owns this historic photo, and 100m others too

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In some sense, the iconic photograph of Rosa Parks recreating her quiet act of rebellion on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., belongs to every American. But as a practical matter, it belongs to Bill Gates.

Anyone wanting to use that image in a book or on a Web site must first license it from Corbis, a corporation founded and owned by Mr. Gates...The photo is among the 11 million prints and negatives in the legendary Bettmann archive, which Corbis bought in 1995.

Since that first purchase, Corbis has spent tens of millions of dollars acquiring image collections and other companies, hired more than 1,000 people and set up two dozen offices worldwide. Although Corbis says it brings in some $250 million a year in sales, it has yet to turn a profit...

The company still gets some 88 percent of its revenues from image licenses, yet commands only about 11 percent of that market. Getty Images dominates the market with a 40 percent share...

Corbis also owns digital reproduction rights for art from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London.

In all, Corbis represents or owns the rights to more than 100 million images, including some of the most famous photographs ever —- Arthur Sasse’s photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out and Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate. And Corbis handles the licensing of millions of other images on behalf of thousands of photographers...

The Corbis photographs themselves are not stored in Seattle, except digitally on the computers there. And those digital images constitute only a small fraction of Corbis’s holdings. Of the 50 million items in the Sygma collection, just 800,000 have been digitized.

The prints and negatives from Otto L. Bettmann’s archive, as well as those from a few smaller collections, are kept 220 feet underground in a former limestone mine in rural Pennsylvania. In February, Corbis announced that it would be storing the Sygma collection in a preservation facility near Paris.

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