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They Killed My Agency: Corbis-Sygma Deal In Ruins

3 September 2000 - EPUK

Sygma founder forced out, senior Corbis executive resigns and award winning photographers quit: Corbis, the photo agency founded and owned by Bill Gates, faces yet another public relations disaster after a string of sackings and resignations centred on the company’s Sygma division.

The crisis has erupted just days before the opening of this year’s Visa Pour L’Image international festival in Perpignan, where Corbis had been planning a major recruiting drive aimed at the gathering of the world’s top photojournalists. Instead they now face a storm of protest from angry and disillusioned ex-contributors. Ironically, Corbis’ purchase of Sygma was announced with great fanfare at last year’s festival: it now appears that Perpignan will be remembered for both the birth and death of Corbis-Sygma. Referring to Corbis yesterday, one resigning Sygma photographer claimed “they killed my agency”.

The last few days have seen an unprecedented hemorrhaging of talent from the company which had been touted as the jewel in the Corbis crown.

Jean-Pierre Laffont, one of the founders of Sygma in the early 70’s, has been reportedly forced out of the company.

Peter Howe, Vice President Artist Relations & Collection Development at Corbis, and the senior executive in charge of negotiations with photographers, has resigned. Industry luminary Howe, due to represent Corbis at Perpignan next week, is a former photographer and Life Magazine picture editor, and was viewed by Corbis as proof of the company’s photographer-friendly stance. However, he was widely known to be increasingly unhappy about many of the contract terms Corbis were asking him to negotiate with photographers.

A number of top Sygma photographers, including award-winning photojournalists Allen Tannenbaum, Les Stone and Andrew Lichtenstein, have quit the agency, and many more are predicted to follow.

The latest events are the climax of a year-long row between Corbis and their contributors, who have accused the company of dishonesty, ineptitude and arrogance. At the centre of the storm has been Corbis’ attempts to foist a series of oppressive contracts on their contributors. Despite repeated efforts by photographers to negotiate reasonable terms, the company has been either unwilling or unable produce a contract acceptable to contributors.

Difficulties originally arose last autumn when a US-based Corbis delegation, including Howe, presented Sygma’s Paris contributors with a new contract; the document, which ran contrary to French law, was immediately rejected by the photographers. In the ensuing fall-out, as an increasing number of their contributors sought legal advice, Corbis withdrew the proposed contract, claiming that its’ presentation had been “a mistake”.

Faced with a major public relations disaster, and under pressure to achieve a satisfactory working relationship with their contributors, Corbis embarked on a series of meetings with photographers world-wide in attempt to produce an acceptable photographers’ contract. Recently they published a new contract proposal, which they claimed addressed photographers’ concerns.

However, one on-line discussion group representing hundreds of Corbis contributors has already responded to this latest revised and supposedly photographer-friendly contract with a 14-page, point-by-point document listing changes and clarifications that need to be made.

Amongst the many areas of concern are Corbis’s obligations as agent, derivative rights, indirect revenues, contract termination, return of images, foreign representation, indemnification, acceptance of images, royalty percentage and payment, audit rights, liability limitations, non-disclosure, alteration of images, company-owned commissioned work, image priority coding, sales information disclosure to the photographer, and advertising and promotion of the newly acquired collections.

Allen Tannenbaum, a 20 year Sygma veteran, accused the company of negotiating with photographers in bad faith, and continued: “It is profoundly cynical and hypocritical for Corbis to co-sponsor the photojournalism festival at Perpignan while treating their own photojournalists with such contempt.”

Another Sygma photographer predicted: “Perpignan is coming and they’ll get a kicking – they may wonder why, but Corbis is shooting themselves repeatedly in the foot. At Perpignan, Corbis will reap the whirlwind. Corbis is a co-sponsor of the festival, so their shaky reputation as a ‘photog – friendly’ company will lie in tatters. If this keeps up, they’ll have nothing.”

Photographers have repeatedly accused Corbis, who allegedly lost $50 million last year, of driving industry prices down in an attempt to acquire market share by squeezing smaller agents and independent photographers out of business. While many had hoped that Corbis would use their size and influence to negotiate higher editorial rates, the opposite appears to have been to true. Comments one ex-contributor, “Making a profit is not in their business plan, or at least not yet. Gaining market shares and locking up the production of the photographers with a bad contract is part of their actual plan. They just want to get their hands on the maximum of photographs produced.”

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