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Tuesday, March 14, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Art Software Debuts To Good Reviews -- Corbis Gaining Credibility

After six years in development, Bill Gates' "other company," Bellevue-based Corbis, is finally coming into its own, attracting good reviews with its first CD-ROM title and cutting new deals at a recent rate of 10 a week.

The company's new disk, "A Passion for Art: Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, and Dr. Barnes," has been hitting store shelves over the past two weeks, receiving positive mentions in The New York Times and other publications.

Corbis Publishing, which put out the disk, expects in September to release two more CDs, which it won't discuss in detail until this summer. Meanwhile, the company's other division, Corbis Media, just sent 20,000 mailings to potential customers, hoping to re-license some of its 250,000 images for use in electronic books, online services, advertising and other forums.

Industry insiders say the company's early work is easing concerns that Gates would lock up exclusive rights to fine-art masterpieces then repackage them in a thoughtless way for the masses.

"After seeing this, people will appreciate Gates' vision and understanding. It will give Corbis credibility," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a Silicon Valley research firm.

Corbis executives say their archive of fine-art images and photographs, which doubled in 1994, will triple this year. The company's curators are traveling the world negotiating with museums and photographers, signing deals with The National Gallery in

London, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the State Russian Museum, the Seattle Art Museum and others. In the past two weeks alone, Corbis signed deals with 20 photographers.

Aside from fine art, Corbis is collecting pictures of wildlife, airplanes, historic and sports events, and other subjects covering "the range of human experience."

Doug Rowan, president, won't disclose financial figures, but he did say the company's income this year should be divided about equally between Corbis Media, which re-licenses the images, and Corbis Publishing, which makes the CDs.

"A Passion for Art" has impressed reviewers with its technical quality and entertaining format. And it has given Corbis and Gates credibility in an area where he made a rough start.

Gates frightened art followers around the world after he founded Corbis in 1989 (then under the name Interactive Home Systems and later Continuum).

He started out saying he hoped to buy exclusive electronic rights to artwork. He wanted to display them on wall-sized monitors in the expansive home he is having built on the Lake Washington shore.

Things got worse when he later conceded he wanted to re-license the artwork to anyone who would pay a price. Museums bristled, afraid to deal away their rights to priceless art. The press and public joined in, some predicting Gates' lack of knowledge about art would lead to computerized packaging of the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces.

"A Passion for Art," a tour of the Barnes Foundation museum in Philadelphia, and other, behind-the-scenes work by Corbis, seem to be allaying those fears.

First off, Corbis is licensing only nonexclusive rights to art and to photographs. The company then can re-license the images to customers, serving as a clearinghouse of sorts, but doesn't have sole use of the artwork.

Second, the quality of "A Passion for Art" has observers saying worries about kitsch were unfounded.

Bajarin, of Creative Strategies, said "A Passion for Art" shows how computerized art images can be woven into storytelling.

The $45 CD allows its viewers to "walk" through the Barnes museum, strolling from room to room and clicking on paintings for a close-up view, biographical information about the artist and other information.

Much of the disk features documentary-style information about Dr. Albert Barnes, an eccentric art collector in the early 1900s, and the artists he followed. It has a "slide-show" feature enabling, for example, an art teacher to arrange paintings in any order for comparison and contrast.

"Our hope for the title is that we can reach far beyond the hard-core art crowd," Rowan said. "We think there are reasons, entertainment reasons, we can draw people's interest."

Rowan said Corbis and CDs like "A Passion for Art" will do more to increase interest in museums than to steal their business. And they will complement art books, which show more pure reproductions but don't have the entertainment or customizing potential that computer programs do.

Gates' original idea, to use huge monitors to broadcast a revolving art show in his new house, is still a dream. The hardware doesn't exist for such large projection, although Gates' house is being built with spaces where monitors will be added later.

Corbis isn't the only company in the business of licensing electronic images.

Traditional stock-photo houses are beginning to transfer their collections to computer images. And some multimedia companies are producing disks of fine art, such as "Great Paintings, Renaissance to Impressionism," a disk of The Frick Collection in New York, by Digital Collections Inc. in Alameda, Calif.

Stuart Marson, chairman of Digital Collections, said that unlike Corbis, his company does negotiate for exclusive rights to museum works, but only by allowing museums to become full partners in its projects. Digital Collections also doesn't re-license works; it only produces disks and similar products.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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