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Online Photo Services Put Pressure on Corbis

In some sense, the iconic photograph of Rosa Parks recreating her quiet act of rebellion on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 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 Gates, who is better known for starting Microsoft. The Rosa Parks 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.

Now the company is shuffling its top executives as it takes on new challenges, building up a business in rights management and plotting its response to the rise of low-cost online photo services that threaten to undermine its lucrative stock photo sales.

The company planned to announce Tuesday that Gary Shenk, the current president, is being made chief executive as well. Shenk, 36, is an expert in rights licensing who has risen rapidly through the Corbis ranks since he was hired in 2003 from Universal Studios.

Steve Davis, 49, the outgoing chief executive, will continue as a senior adviser after 10 years of running the company.

The move into rights clearance, which involves sorting out the complicated questions of who owns what material and how much they should be paid for its use, is a departure from the original vision for the company.

Gates started Corbis in 1989 with the idea that people would someday decorate their homes with a revolving display of digital artwork - interspersing, say, Cecil Stoughton's iconic shot of John F. Kennedy Jr. playing under his father's desk in the Oval Office with photos of their own families at play.

That is not how things have worked out.

But meanwhile, Corbis has built up a formidable stash of historical photos, including those in the Bettmann Archive. In 1999, Corbis acquired the licensing rights to the Sygma collection in France, and two years ago it did the same with a German stock image company called Zefa. It licenses those images for an average of about $250 apiece.

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 archival photos bring in about half of Corbis's sales, but the company also has a stable of professional photographers who generate stock photos for advertising and media clients - images of children on playgrounds, people sitting in business meetings and men in khakis swinging golf clubs.

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