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National Geographic's wild about digital

The nature society's vivid photos of flying frogs, endangered monkeys and the like are for sale in digital format, as part of its push into e-commerce.

National Geographic's vivid photos of flying frogs, endangered monkeys and the like are for sale in digital format, as part of the nature society's push into e-commerce.

The National Geographic Society, in partnership with IBM, is digitizing more than 10,000 of its classic wildlife and culture photos and making them available for professional use through the Web. The two companies will announce their multiyear partnership Tuesday.

"The industry has changed such that agencies, designers and publishers now expect the convenience and accessibility to images offered online, so they can download them anytime," said Maura Mulvihill, vice president of image collection and sales for the National Geographic Society. "For us, the timing is right to provide this."

By moving its photo archives online, the scientific and educational society will put itself into direct competition with digital-image stalwarts Getty Images and Corbis, which sell use of millions of stock photography and electronic images to professionals and the public. In contrast, National Geographic is offering up a fraction its 10 million-plus photo archives for commercial use only. It plans to add thousands of additional images annually. National Geographic already sells some of its images through Getty Images.

Still, National Geographic is entering the market at a time when professional advertising agencies and publishers are increasingly looking to purchase and download images digitally. Mulvihill estimates that between 60 percent and 75 percent of its clients want to buy rights to photography digitally, whereas two years ago only half that percentage requested digital images. To stay afloat, boutique agencies such as National Geographic must provide access to archives digitally or lose customers.

"Everyone else is doing it; you have to do it, or you won't be in the business that long," Mulvihill said.

For Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, the partnership falls in line with its entertainment and media practice, in which it aims to help companies bring their content online and place a commercial value on it. Steve Canepa, IBM's vice president of global media and entertainment, said the company has worked with CNN, Coca-Cola and the Vatican on similar efforts to digitize content, manage and deliver it more efficiently through electronic systems.

For National Geographic, IBM is providing the e-business software, called WebSphere Commerce for Digital Media, to allow customers to easily search the archives and purchase images securely. Big Blue is also providing the hardware infrastructure technology, IBM Content Manager and DB2 database software.

"We're helping customers extend and enhance their brand in digital markets," Canepa said. "Secondly we're allowing them to build better relationships with customers."

He added that by building an e-commerce and digital infrastructure it lowers the cost of distribution and management over time.

National Geographic surveyed the industry during the past several years and started looking for a technology partner last fall. The group hopes to recoup its investment in the venture within the next year, banking on prestige of its photos.

"We're the Chanel line--the high-end photography that has a hallmark of originality and reality that sets it apart in the marketplace," Mulvihill said. "We are hoping that we will become the third bookmark for people looking to buy photography online.