An educational image bank with global ambitions will be launched next week by Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
The Knowledge Gallery's stock in trade will be the valuable collections of images, ranging from medieval manuscripts to molecular structures, held by United Kingdom higher education institutions.
The venture can be seen as UK academia's response to the activities of companies such as Corbis, owned by software billionaire Bill Gates, which are systematically buying up the digital rights to paintings, photos and other cultural assets worldwide.
The need for a national educational image bank was identified in a report prepared for the funding councils' Joint Information Systems Committee by Mel Collier of De Montfort University. A similar plan was proposed independently by Smart Isles, a not-for-profit company established by the Confederation of British Industry.
While academic minds may have seen the image bank primarily as a defensive move, big business wants to turn it into an aggressive marketing operation with the mission "to be the world's best known and preferred source of digital media for education materials". Kodak, Hewlett Packard and Barclays Bank are putting in money.
Initially it will operate as a club, offering institutions free access to other members' image collections through the academic network JANET. Meanwhile the venture will try to recover the investment of its commercial backers, and make some money for universities, by marketing university-owned images to publishers and multimedia producers.
The Knowledge Gallery will also seek deals with commercial image libraries, with the aim of securing favourable access terms for UK academics. In line with JISC policy, whenever possible the material will be free at the point of use, though institutions may have to pay an annual subscription.