Corbis will cheerfully charge you up the wazoo for public domain images

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Former Corbis employee here (2003–2008):

There are a few differences. The images you get from Corbis have been cleaned, color-corrected and/or white-black balanced, etc. The resolution is often higher than the public domain scans. Sometimes Corbis has the original negative, while the public domain relies on a second, third, or higher generation copy. In other words, the Corbis quality is almost always much higher.

I’m not sure that justifies the high price, but from a legal point of view, Corbis’s corrected and balanced photo is their own unique digital version and can be licensed as such.

I often mentioned the public domain version when dealing with independent and non-profit agencies. Some were very appreciative, others didn’t like the inferior quality and would license the Corbis image instead of saving money.


What part of “maximizing shareholder value” don’t you people understand? Industry has been cheerfully monetizing the commons for centuries. The only difference is that now it’s data, not coal or lumber.


I’m sure Corbis has lawyers that will argue that, but it seems like they’re still running into Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. because they’re attempting to correct for accurately displaying the images rather than create new images. The scanning at a higher resolution doesn’t change the fact that the image is still in the public domain. They only real power they have is a contract and the access they provide. It seems that if someone else got a hold of a copy of their version of a public domain image, only firing off their high-priced lawyer salvos would protect their claims. The matter would likely go unsettled in an actual court ruling and they’d hold onto their de facto monopoly as many other corporations have been allowed to do with the public domain. But that wouldn’t make it ethical.


Which would imply NO ability to charge differently for internal use vs publication rights…

It reminds me a bit of a using a modern Beethoven recording. The music is public domain, but the recording is not.

Could a film producer get away with using that recording without paying rights? Quite possibly! But if it’s a really distinctive rendition, then the symphony could probably prove it and sue.

If a Corbis version of an image is distinctive – perhaps they did a super job at cleaning it and restoring a damaged portion – they could prove it. But if it’s a 200x200 thumbnail on a site, it would be a bit more of a challenge.

On a side note, big marketing agencies know damn well that they can get historical images via public domain. They pay for Corbis image services more than anything else.

The film producer would be sued for copyright infringement because the recording is copyrighted even if the original composition isn’t. A modern recording is a separate work of art because it involves artistic choices to conduct and perform a work and record it. It’s arguable as to whether the Corbis version of a public domain image is a separate work of art. They could only copyright the parts they change. A court would have to decide if those changes are substantial enough to warrant a copyright. The problem with public domain works is that no one who owns the only and/or best physical copy of a public domain work is required to have it digitally scanned at the highest possible quality and released somewhere online.

(Edited to remove Equilibrium reference since both versions of the song were copyrighted and the better one was just more expensive.)


That’s essentially their argument – the digital scan, and the image processing that improved it, make it a new work.

The weirdest thing was licensing fine art images, getting rights from the museum, etc, even for art that’s hundreds of years old, because the museums control access to scanning.

How little does someone have to modify a work to make it new? I guess we should ask Richard Prince.

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I just downloaded the public domain 44MB tiff from the LoC website. It’s an impressive scan, and it’s actually larger than the largest file available for purchase on Corbis at 7500 x 3123 pixels vs. 1995 × 2395. (And yes I realize the LoC photo is an intact stereograph so it’s at least twice as wide.) The Corbis version (at least the free comping version since I’m not paying $99 to check the real thing) has a red color cast, is cropped, and is overexposed. Not sure if that justifies the higher price or not.


In years past Corbis & competitors were far easier to use than LOC. Has anyone compared that sort of value recently?

I left before they outsourced most image processing, and before the government public domain sites had big images available. I guess my experience is more dated than I thought.

But wow, whomever processed the Corbis version didn’t do a very good job. It wouldn’t have passed Q/A when I was there.


In Corbis’ defense they did clean it up and crop out a bunch of unnecessary stuff like damaged parts of the negative and crop the original stereo image to show only the best of the two halves. And I don’t really know what the actual download looks like. As a history geek, I rather like looking at all the imperfections from the LoC scan, but as an art director I may not be so interested.

I came here to say this. I was also at Corbis but left about the time that you started.

I always thought commercial use rates for images were crazy, but that seems to be the market rate. Things are worth what people will pay for them I guess.

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Yep, I think I just figured out how to finance my kids’ college bills! Get public domain stuff, then sell it.

However, in Corbis’ defense, is this any different than publishing and selling a reprint of Alice in Wonderland in a fine binding and charging a lot? I mean, yeah, $1735 is a bit much, but I have no idea what the broadcast license is for an image when used on a TV show.

I work for a special collections library, and our license to use an image from our collection in your publication (if we own the rights or if it’s public domain) is pretty steep. Publishers pay it, though, without much thought. My guess is Corbis knows what it can charge.

That LoC stereograph is indeed about 1000x better than the Corbis thumbnail… But I kept looking and the LoC has a single-image version that looks almost exactly like the Corbis thumbnail, with sepia tone, and much blurrier. It looks like Corbis chose the shittiest version of the photo when searching LoC, then cleaned up the gross, blurry bad copy.

This is the one that I think Corbis is reselling after applying a few filters, not the stereograph:

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As far as I know, Corbis never got images from the LoC. That kind of historical image was from the Bettmann collection. It has millions of historical images, often original negatives. All stored in Iron Mountain – it will survive the apocalypse, even if we don’t.

But this is one of the cases where the LoC has the original. Other famous historical photos, like the workers having lunch on the Empire State Building, is owned by Corbis.

Their version of that, and many others, is absolutely the best and they’ll clutch onto it with their fingernails as that kind of stuff comes into the public domain over the next few years.


Regarding the linked article- I’m not sure the offering of another stock image resource via creative cloud is really the end of commercial art jobs! But, as someone who creates stock merchandise (in the form of After Effects templates) I do worry that I participate in undercutting my own profession sometimes…

But I think the consumer base of this material is actually expanding: more and more small business are looking for designs, photography, and video… Things that small business (or even individuals) never looked for. The people using Adobe stock images will be individuals hired by small companies for a fee that would never have commanded the creation of an agency job in the past. So net gain?

At the same time, agencies are shedding full time staff and using more outsourced/contract labor… Plus there’s a true glut of sock image out there now… You can buy image licenses for $5 at this point. As a photographer it’s really a race to the bottom and it makes me nervous as someone who doesn’t want to still be crouched behind this computer 30 years from now.

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