Following French reports that claimed that more than 10 millions images, representing 25% of Sygma's entire archives, could soon be destroyed, BJP spoke with lawyer Stéphane Gorrias, who's been charged with Corbis-Sygma's liquidation.
Gorrias tells BJP that the reports are erronous and that there are currently no plans to destroy any images held in the collections.
Sygma was launched in 1973. It quickly became one of the leading photo agencies in the world, representing photographers such as Allen Tannenbaum, Les Stone and Andrew Lichtenstein. The Sygma archive also includes images from the 1950s and 60s obtained from Apis, Universal Photo, Interpress, Spitzer, Reporter Associes and other agencies.
In the 1990s it changed hands several times, but in 1999 Bill Gates acquired it through Corbis. It was not a painless acquisition. In 2001, 90 employees, including 42 photographers, were made redundant after weeks of protests and strikes. Since then, the agency has been inactive, with no new content submitted in the archives, and former Sygma photographers now known as Corbis contributors.
In 2009, Corbis created Corbis France, as well as Corbis-Sygma, a subsidiary of Corbis France. Corbis contacted more than 10,000 former Sygma contributors to gain authorisation to commercialise the collection via Corbis France. Around 850 of them have signed a new contract with Corbis, while the remaining images - "around 25% of the entire archives" according to Corbis - stayed under the Corbis-Sygma umbrella.
However, in May last year, Corbis announced that it would shut the Corbis-Sygma company."This is a very difficult decision because we've spent more than a decade investing time and money to preserve and make accessible to the world the work of Sygma photographers," said a Corbis spokeswoman at the time. "We've been forced to seek liquidation of the business because, despite our best efforts and investment of tens of millions of Euros, we have been unable to resolve issues that Corbis inherited with the Sygma acquisition."
She added: "Prior to its acquisition by Corbis, Sygma lost a relatively small number of images as a result of lax library management procedures. Some photographers have subsequently taken legal action against Sygma."
Sygma was hit with a massive €1.5m fine after it was found guilty of losing 750 images that belonged to Dominique Aubert, a French photographer. Aubert worked for Sygma from 1987 until 1995. In 2003, he asked Corbis to return his images, but found that 750 of them went missing from the 250,000 he had shot while at Sygma. Under French law, a photographer retains his rights on all of his images, including when he works for a press agency.
Finding the fine "immensely disproportionate to the revenue opportunity with the images" and given previous decisions, and other likely future lawsuits," Corbis came to the conclusion that "it is no longer possible to maintain Sygma."
In addition, Stefan Biberfeld, Sygma's director, said that the agency lost €2m in 2009, bringing the company's debt, over the past 10 years, to €73m.
Since this announcement, the agency's liquidator has tried to find the copyright holders of the images remaining in Corbis-Sygma's archives. Earlier this month, reports emerged that if unsuccessful, the images could be destroyed.
Corbis says that the reports aren't true. "As you know, Corbis last year was forced to liquidate the Sygma business entity in France, and as a result, part of the Sygma archive is now being managed by a French liquidator, and the liquidator makes the decisions on that content," says Corbis' spokesman Dan Perlet. "The liquidator is making every effort to return the images to the photographers, and the liquidator to our knowledge has no intention of destroying the images in the case that the photographers can't be found."
Meanwhile, Perlet adds, "Corbis is continuing to maintain the Sygma Access and Preservation Facility outside Paris France, preserving the 75% of the 50 million photographic elements taken by photographers who have signed a contract to be represented by Corbis Corporation. Corbis worked to sign all contributors, but some declined or couldn't be found."
He continues: "The liquidator is managing the remaining 25% of the photographic elements. These elements remain in the Sygma Access and Preservation Facility at this time, and the liquidator is working to contact all photographers to have them reclaim it by sending correspondence to photographers if possible. Corbis is continuing to preserve them in our facility until informed otherwise by the liquidator or the photographer comes and collects them. The liquidator to our knowledge has not detailed what will happen to the images if the photographer who took them can't be found, but he has not indicated any intention to destroy them, and suggestions that they will be destroyed are purely speculation and rumor."
Speaking to BJP, Perlet, however, says that Corbis could continue to preserve the remaining 25% to prevent them from being destroyed or lost. "If Corbis and the liquidator can agree terms, it's certainly something that Corbis is open to. We certainly don't want to see work destroyed," he tells BJP.
Corbis to shut down legendary Sygma photo agency - 24 May 2010
Old Gold - 10 June 2009
Corbis acts to save Sygma heritage - 20 May 2009
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