Songwriter Earl Shuman sued Alicia Keys for allegedly “sampling” parts of the composition “Hey There Lonely Boy” (“Lonely”) that he co-wrote in 1962. According to the complaint, Keys’ recording of “Girl on Fire” (“Fire”), which is the lead single on her same-titled album, misappropriates a few notes of the composition. Shuman’s composition was recorded by various artists, including Martha and The Vandellas and Ruby and the Romantics, but hit its peak when it was recorded by former Delfonics and Stylistics singer Eddie Holman. In 1969, Holman changed the object of Lonely from “boy” to “girl,” and this rendition went on to rise to No. 2 on Billboard charts. Keys’ Fire currently ranks No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and has gone on to receive international acclaim. The song is also prominently featured in a recent Citibank commercial.
Shuman filed his complaint for copyright infringement in the Central District of California on December 10, 2012. What makes the case interesting is that Shuman’s complaint’s allegations of infringement rely almost exclusively on a November 25, 2012 blog post written by Roger Friedman of Showbiz411. Quoting Friedman’s blog, Shuman’s complaint provides: “There’s another sample (emphasis added) . . . from Eddie Holman’s 1970 classic [Lonely, which] was written by Leon Carr and Earl Shuman, who are both gone to rock and rock and roll heaven.” Mr. Shuman later commented on the post, thanking Mr. Friedman for his “expertise” and letting him know that he is “still here on the ground, writing songs.” Interestingly, both Shuman’s complaint and Friedman’s blog post suggest the existence of a digital sample – that is, the use of Holman’s recording in Keys’ recording. While the use of the term idiomatically in the blog post is of no real moment, the use in the complaint is factually inaccurate and legally imprecise.
This is because Shuman’s infringement claim stems from the way in which Keys (i.e. not Holman) sings the words “lonely girl” at 2 minutes and 24 seconds into Fire. Click here to listen. Shuman alleges that Keys sings “lonely girl” in a way that sounds similar to Holman’s version of Lonely. Specifically, Shuman accuses Keys of copying three notes from Lonely and seeks damages and profits for the unauthorized use. Take a listen below:
The complaint notes that Fire includes a a digital sample of a drum line from Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat.” According to Shuman, the Billy Squier sample was authorized and credited. Regardless of Shuman’s imprecise pleading, Shuman may nonetheless have the opportunity to prove that Fire misappropriated portions of the Lonely composition (even if it did not utilize the sound recording). Stay tuned to see how the California courts decide whether additional credit is due.
The case is Shuman v. Sony Music Entertainment et al., case number 2:12-cv-10572, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.