Corbis puts Sygma to rest

It used to be the recession. Companies would shed dead branches and blame it on the recession even if it wasn’t the real cause. But not Corbis. It missed that boat. Instead, and what irony, it blames photographers. The announcement, at the eve of a long three day week-end, of the total and complete liquidation of Corbis Sygma, came as a surprise.

Never before did the Seattle based Bill Gates owned company had ever admitted failure is such a big scale. It used to be that they would acquire healthy companies, get rid of all the people that had made them successful, water down the archives, integrate them into a vast digital mash up and the job was done. Promises were forever abandoned, names synonym with success would forever vanish into oblivion, and pictures would sink deeply into an immense tasteless database. The triumph of the corpocrates. The rule by committee at its best. The Borgs (resistance is futile: You will be assimilated) of the photo industry had talent at erasing any and all traces of those companies it had so proudly acquired. In its typical corporate arrogance, it never admitted failure. Just successive strategy changes.

Back in the 90’s Bill Gates wanted a news agency. He had the Bettmann Archives; he now wanted something more lively. The Co-Ceo’s at the time went shopping for the boss. For a while, it was the financially weakest (at the time) SIPA that was heavily courted. But it’s legendary owner, Goskin Sipahioglu, could not surrender himself to the idea of being run by incompetents, whatever the amount would be. So all eyes turned to Sygma. In a more precarious financial situation with an exhausted management team, incapable to fund its much needed transition to digital, it surrendered much easier. Like others before, it thought that Corbis would help. Instead, it tried to swallow it.

This one was just too big. Arguments, strikes, misunderstandings, culture shock, mismanagement, incompetence followed. Instead of listening, Corbis send it’s minions to make the Sygma beast surrender to its will. That cost some more millions. Since Sygma was losing money when acquired, there was no reason for the senior management of Corbis, at the time, to listen. Or so they thought. They proceeded with their assimilation plan. However, when you have a news photo agency run by people who are trained in licensing commercial stock or archival images, it doesn’t work. When decisions cannot be made without marathon meetings, and least, 2 to 300, 000 exchanges of emails, there is little or no chance, for a news agency to survive. No way. And since Corbis thought of itself as infallible (probably some Microsoft legacy carried over by its owner), whatever they did was right…Or so they thought.

But they couldn’t stop the bleeding. And they couldn’t completely swallow it. So after reducing it to 29 people, changing it into a stock agency, spending what they claim is 20 million dollars into a remote facility to protect its assets, it is now, for the first time, throwing the towel.

It used a ridiculous judgment as an excuse: 1,5 million Euros for 750 lost images. That is 2,000 Euros per image. Corbis has just recently claim victory, in the USA, for a $7 per image verdict. What a difference. But let’s not be fooled. Even if their assets had been seized by the French justice, this was too good an opportunity to pass. As its current not for long manager said, Stefan Biberfeld,” Our tax debts have risen to 73 millions in the last 10 years and we have lost 2 million Euros just in 1999″.

Let’s stop right here. A few things to note. Why is a lawyer running a photo news agency? Does that make any sense? Stefan Biberfeld was Senior Corporate Council, EMEA, overseeing the Sygma Preservation and Access Initiative before becoming its managing director. Why else if it wasn’t to run a “straight to the ground” strategy?

Side note: EMEA, for those who don’t know, is a corpocrate lingo to say “Europe, Middle East, Africa” because, as we all know, it’s the same thing. Well, at least for Americans.

Another note: Sygma was losing $ 2 million in 1999, when Corbis acquired it. The tone of the phrase hints at this going on, maybe even worse after. 10 years at $2million, that is $20 million. Same as what Corbis spend on the Facility. That is $40 million total. Plus that $73 million in tax debt. That’s $113 million. Dominique Aubert’s claim to $2 million for lost transparencies seems very little in comparison, doesn’t it?

So let’s cut the crap here: Corbis closes Sygma because it was bleeding money and didn’t know what to do. Corbis closes Sygma because of poor management. It closed Sygma because they couldn’t make it work, like everything else they bought. But not after securing distribution contracts with the best photographers so that Daddy Corbis can continue to license the content. The rest? Thrown into the air. Who cares? 29 people will lose their job, which, in this economy, is also nothing.

According to Michel Puech, the judgment, executed yesterday in Paris, was a lonely event. No screams, no cries, hardly anyone. Corbis management representatives were on call to acquiesce and leave. That beer must have tasted quite good.

Photographers have 4 months to claim their images, after which they become “rights free”; meaning whoever purchases them has the rights to license them.

Sygma, the name, the legacy, the history, the people who build it, the photographers who died for it, its impact on the world, forgotten. Forever.

Thank Guys. We really needed that

About the author

This business has too many Surveyors and not enough Bohemians”  Roger Therond , legendary photo man, once said to a good friend of mine, Eliane Laffont. This blog is about restoring the balance and letting the Bohemians talk.

Paul Melcher  has been named one of the “50 most influential individuals in American photography” by American Photo. He is currently senior vice president of the PictureGroup. He writes the Thoughts of a Bohemian blog


Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

3 thoughts on “Corbis puts Sygma to rest

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  • May 28, 2010 at 12:25 am

    As a long time Sygma photog tht quit in 2000, I have to comment. I will never forget a meeting I went into with the senior managment of Sygma NY with the photogs who were still left. We were told, and I Quote “if you don’t like what we are doing the door is over there”. These people were the worst, most incompetent corporate hacks, they treated the talent, and I mean talented photographers like dirt, they couldn’t care less who we were and what we did. I could go on but it’s too painful. Thanx

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