With Corbis Sale, Tiananmen Protest Images Go to Chinese Media Company
Corbis, the photography archive owned by Bill Gates that includes some of the most famous pictures ever made, has sold its image and licensing division to a Chinese company.
The sale gives the new owner, Visual China Group, control over photographs of immense cultural and commercial value — Marilyn Monroe on a subway grate, Rosa Parks on a bus, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock and Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue
But it has been the transfer of images from the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, an event that China’s Communist Party has aggressively blotted out of public view ever since, that has perhaps raised the most alarm.
Xiao Qiang, the founder of China Digital Times, which tracks Chinese media censorship, said the worry was legitimate. “It should not be treated as a surprise if a Chinese media company’s decisions and actions were aligned with the policies and practices of the Chinese government,” he said.
But those involved say they don’t expect the sale to disrupt the status quo. The protest images will be available around the world even if they remain censored within China.
Visual China, which made the purchase through its affiliate Unity Glory International, has also struck a deal with Getty Images, Corbis’s main rival, to distribute the photographs in all countries except China, creating a combined library of more than 200 million images.
Getty has worked with Visual China for more than a decade to market its own library in China. Craig Peters, Getty’s senior vice president for business development, said he was confident that the company would safeguard the availability of politically sensitive images.
“V.C.G. has no limitations over what we produce or what we represent or what we bring to bear in our markets,” Mr. Peters said. “And that level of editorial discretion and integrity is something that we’ve maintained and is 100 percent absolutely intact.”
He also pointed out that many images in the archive, including from the Tiananmen crackdown, do not belong to Corbis. In those cases, the company serves simply as a licensing agent for other parties that hold the rights, such as The Associated Press and Reuters.
For example, reports about the sale of the archive have cited images of the so-called tank man, a solitary protester blocking a column of tanks. Corbis says it owns such an image, but one of the more widely shared ones belongs to Reuters, which can market the photo as it pleases through other channels.
“Corbis pays the rights owner a royalty,” said Whit Clay, a spokesman for Corbis. “But, as the contracts expire, the rights owner can pull their images from the Corbis archive.”
Visual China said in an emailed statement that it was “fully committed to being a good steward of the Corbis images and will continue to make the archives available globally.”
Corbis, based in Seattle, was founded by Mr. Gates in 1989 under the name Interactive Home Systems with a vision that people would one day decorate their homes with revolving digital displays of artwork. That did not happen, but over the years the company acquired an enormous library of images, most notably the Sygma collection in France and the renowned Bettmann archive.
The sale also includes Corbis’s video and stock photography divisions, but not its product placement, celebrity news or music licensing businesses. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The move by Visual China comes after two other notable acquisitions of media assets by Chinese companies in recent weeks. On Jan. 12, the Dalian Wanda Group, a property and entertainment company, said it was buying Legendary Entertainment, one of Hollywood’s biggest movie production companies, for as much as $3.5 billion.
And in December, the Alibaba Group, the Chinese Internet giant, agreed to buy an influential Hong Kong newspaper, The South China Morning Post, as part of an explicit effort to reshape media coverage of China.