The Ultimate Photo Op?

Someday, perhaps, our PCs will turn into vast image banks. Students will cruise the Internet in search of archival photos to illustrate their term papers; lovers will seek out the perfect Toulouse-Lautrec painting to adorn their electronic greeting cards.

If that day ever comes to pass, there is an excellent chance that Bill Gates will make money from it. His Corbis Corp. owns electronic publishing rights to about about half a million paintings, prints, photos, and maps--the world's largest depository of digital images. And on Oct. 10, it announced the purchase of the Bettmann Archive, among the biggest collections of historical photos.

The acquisition will put more than 16 million images--from prehistoric cave drawings to the photo library of United Press International through 1990--in Gates's hands. Says Corbis Chief Executive Doug Rowan: "It's mondo. It's quite magical." It may even be profitable. Rowan, who wouldn't disclose the purchase price, says Corbis will digitize some 300,000 photos while the Bettmann, headed by longtime director Herbert Gstalder, continues operating its existing business in New York.

Gates, the well-photographed chairman of Microsoft Corp., founded Corbis in 1989, then calling it Interactive Home Systems Inc. Its mission: To acquire digital rights to fine art and photographic images that could be viewed electronically--on everything from computerized wall hangings to electronic books. Gates hopes its digital archive will be used by publishing and advertising companies--and by computer users who, for a fee, will download images.

Though analysts say it has scant licensing revenues thus far, Corbis has licensed images to the Arts & Entertainment cable network for use in home videos and delivered fine art images to Midisoft for use in its Braveheart CD-ROM. Experts say the dollar potential for electronic images could be huge. But they also say that in the traditional stock photo business, less than 1% of all images sell each year. Some question whether digital images have any more potential. "There's a lot of hype going on," says Don Barlow, a vice-president of The ImageBank.

Still, most traditional stock businesses, including The ImageBank, have digitizing efforts under way. And the Library of Congress is spending $60 million to digitize 5 million images. Gates, clearly, isn't the only believer.