Stock art goes online and consumer

Looking for just the right photo to use as a background on your home page? Want your e-mail to make the same worldly impression as postcards from a renowned art gallery?

Unless you scan them from a book (which is illegal), such images -- known as stock art in the graphic design business -- cost a bundle. With fees running at about $500 to $1000 or more per image, only professionals preparing commercial publications can afford to use them.

But stock-art vendors are beginning to release consumer-friendly versions of their image databases. You can retrieve digital versions of stock photos and paintings over the Net. The files are small enough to work with, and often the price is right.

Giant image-database vendor Corbis, for one, just went public with a consumer version of its online sales site. You can choose from more than 350,000 images and pay a mere $US3 each for unlimited non-commercial use. You're free to slap these images on your Web site, send them as Corbis e-cards, use them as screen savers, or print them out poster-size and tack them up on a wall. Images come as 640x480 JPEG files, and include a Digimarc digital watermark to trace unauthorised use.

Finding the image you want may take some work. You can drill down through topical categories and sub-categories ranging from Animals and Nature to War and Military, or search by keyword. But beware: keywords are assigned to images by unpredictable human judgement, so they may not turn up what you expect.

The Corbis collection includes colour and black-and-white photos, as well as paintings and other visual materials. The Corbis site provides some free samples, though access to them requires filling out a nosy survey.

By the way, in case you weren't aware, your Corbis purchases fill the pockets of Bill Gates. He founded Corbis 10 years ago when he started buying digital rights to famous artwork. The collection includes images from some of the world's finest museums, among them the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bettmann Collection and the Library of Congress.