Singer Alicia Keys Sued for Copyright Infringement

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Alicia Keys, known for her hit songs, If I Ain’t Got You, No One and her most recent single, Girl On Fire, has found herself on the receiving end of a copyright infringement lawsuit. Veteran songwriter Earl Shuman is suing Keys over Girl On Fire, saying it sounds too similar to the 1962 hit Hey There Lonely Girl, which he originally composed as Lonely Boy.

Hey There Lonely Girl became a hit after being performed by Eddie Holman in 1970. Forty-three years later, Keys performs a song that one commentator says includes a “couplet or so from Eddie Holman’s 1970 classic ‘Hey There Lonely Girl.’” Roger Friedman of Showbiz411, was the first to publicize the notion that the two songs have similar elements. According to reports, Shuman read Friedman’s interpretation and deemed it sound. Shuman publicly praised the celebrity news blogger for his insights and used the information to further legal action against the pop singer for copyright infringement.

Judging from the many online comments posted around the web, the blogosphere, fans and other interested parties are not in agreement that Keys is guilty. Decide for yourself:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/J91ti_MpdHA#!

Understanding Copyright Infringement

Under the law, there are a variety of intellectual property works that can be copyrighted, these include: literary works; works of dramatic art; musical works; audio recordings; motion pictures; imaging, graphics, or sculpture works; computer software; and architectural works. In order for a work to be used illegally by someone other than the creator, it has to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Go to How to Maintain and Sell a Copyright for more on registering a copyright.

In a copyright lawsuit, the Plaintiff will have to show that the Defendant used a creator’s work without permission to copy or reproduce to sell, perform, display or give away; or produce a new piece that is derived from the original. Copyright law is issued federally, so any copyright action will brought in a U.S. District Court.

The key purpose of suing for infringement is to force the violator to remove their work from whatever platform it exists, which is done through a court injunction order requiring the removal of the work. Plaintiffs also often seek either money damages to compensate for any income made from the use of their copyrighted work, or punitive damages to punish the violator.

To win an infringement lawsuit, the Plaintiff must only prove two elements: that they were in fact the original creator and that they registered the copyright; and that the defendant used the work without the creator’s permission. This involves proving that the violator had access to the work and that they did not come up with the idea without having been previously exposed to the original at any point.

If it is proven that they had access to the work, it will then have to be shown that the new work is similar enough to be confused with the original–that it is substantially similar, not necessarily identical. To determine whether two works are substantially similar, courts will look to experts for an assessment; professional musicians for a song infringement or experienced artists for a replicated painting.

The Fair Use Defense

The most common defense used in copyright infringement lawsuits derives from the fair use doctrine, which allows reasonable use of copyrighted works without permission under specific circumstances. These include for uses in news reports, professional commentary, criticism, education or research.

Whether a defendant can turn to the fair use defense will depend on the nature of the work: whether it was originally made for commercial use; whether the use was financially or sentimentally detrimental to the creator; how much of the work was recreated; and whether it was used for legitimate educational purposes or for some type of gain. If quotations or a credit line were used in the redistribution of the work, this is often not seen as infringement; social commentary in blogs or social networks are generally not either.

Fair use is not a clear-cut way to avoid violating a copyright, however, as each case will be looked at given the specific circumstances. In Alicia Key’s case, Shuman and his attorney’s will be tasked with showing that the singer, having heard Hey There Lonely Girl, created a substantially similar element of the original work. Reports indicate that the pop star has not yet responded to the claims, so how it will unfold in court remains to be seen.


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