Corbis: O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?

Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother,” (1936), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

It’s not easy (read: profitable) owning a large portion of U.S. visual culture. Today’s New York Times business section contains an article about Corbis, the giant photographic archives/licensing business owned by Bill Gates, describing the challenges Corbis faces as it tries to become profitable in a marketplace with more and more “microstock agencies” offering imagery at rock-bottom rates. What’s even more interesting is that 2 of the images mentioned and displayed in the article’s slide-show are, almost certainly, in the public domain, which eliminates the need to consult Corbis or any other for profit agency altogether. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” was created with government funds (the Farm Security Administration) and is available through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division and the photograph of John F. Kennedy by Cecil Stoughton is most likely in the public domain because Stoughton was employed by the Kennedy Administration – making his photos of Kennedy government documents. Many of Stoughton’s images are available at the JFK Library and Museum, which lists them in the public domain.

Now, perhaps I am engaging in unnecessary hand-wringing, but it is important to be aware that agencies like Corbis, while useful and possessing amazing collections, are also somewhat unscrupulous when it comes to selling images that we, as U.S. citizens, collectively own.

The sound you may be hearing right now is me being pushed off my soapbox.

A Photo Trove, a Mounting Challenge,” Katie Hafner, New York Times, April 10, 2007.

On a related note, Corbis’s facilities at Iron Mountain in rural southwest Pennsylvania are truly incredible. Tours are available for official groups who get the proper clearances. Iron Mountain also holds government records, the Census Bureau has its own underground zip code, so security is, well, fairly high.

Posted by: Ian M.


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