Two years ago Andy Baio released a chipmusic tribute to Miles Davis. He paid royalties for the music, but forgot about the cover art. It had a pixel art version of a photo by Jay Maisel, who sued Baio. The whole thing ended with a settlement outside of court where Baio had to pay $32,500.
We know this because Baio insisted on his right to be able to talk about it. That’s rare. Usually there are contracts to make people shut up about these things. We’ll probably never know what really happened with all that Timbaland-stuff, for example.
Now the haters are all over Maisel. Maisel is the bad guy, Baio is the good guy. But this is not really a story about two individuals. It’s about a complex system that revolves around money, and is maintained by those who can profit from it. Lawyers, for example. Copyright holders. Copyright collecting agencies. Distributors. And last (and probably least) the people who produce the stuff that this system revolves around.
In this case, Maisel can earn this amount of money in a day doing other things but for his copyright attorneys it’s their main source of income. They don’t care about Maisel’s reputation, they are “just doing their job”. Maisel, on the other hand, probably considers this as a good deed for the photographic community which has been severly screwed by mainstream media for decades.
So: nobody is doing anything “wrong”? Maybe not. In fact – copyright lawsuits happen even if everything is legit (which probably was the case here). But if you don’t have the money to pay the lawyers, you will always lose to those who can. So you choose to not risk it, pay the settlement, and shut up “because that’s the least expensive option available“. That is the story here and Baio is a hero for making it public. And reactionary initiatives like Creative Commons are more like make-up that justify the abuse instead of fixing the problem.