The late George Harrison’s creativity seemingly knew no bounds. However, on one bizarre occasion, a court of law found otherwise when they deemed the former Beatle guilty of ‘subconscious plagiarism’ on his track ‘My Sweet Lord’, in what was a landmark ruling on August 31st, 1976.
The peculiar first of its kind case, which would ultimately rumble on for decades, began all the way back in 1971 when Bright Tunes Music sued Harrison because they thought the track sounded too similar to the 1963 Chiffons hit ‘He’s So Fine’. The business, which was owned by The Tokens, formed the production company that recorded ‘He’s So Fine’ which, in turn, meant that they owned the rights to the song.
As the years passed, the court case became more convoluted and would eventually play a huge part in Harrison falling out of love with the music industry. At the time of the case being filed, Harrison’s manager was Allen Klein, a professional who dealt with Bright Tunes on the former Beatle’s behalf — which would end up being the biggest mistake that the guitarist would make.
Bright Tunes then filed for bankruptcy with the case disappearing until 1976, a time when in the interim Klein had departed from his role alongside Harrison in a truly bitter fashion. Soon after, he began consulting for Bright Tunes and he sought revenge on the former member of The Fab Four. Harrison then offered to settle the case for $148,000, in January 1976, but Klein didn’t want to take the easy route and proceeded to push through a legal battle.
The trial eventually took place between February 23rd and 25th with the case focussing on the musical pattern of the two songs, which were both based on two musical motifs ‘G-E-D’ and ‘G-A-C-A-C’. The motifs were repeated in ‘He’s So Fine’ four times whereas ‘My Sweet Lord‘ repeated the first motif four times as well as the second motif three times.
The judge came to the conclusion that Harrison did not deliberately copy ‘My Sweet Lord’ but then followed by claiming that just because it wasn’t intentional, that wasn’t enough with Harrison found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” in a verdict handed down on August 31, 1976.
As ‘My Sweet Lord’ represented 70% of the airplay from his All Things Must Pass album and the judge ruled that the figure should be around $1.6 million, an amount which was substantially higher than Harrison imagined. The situation worsened when, two years later, Klein’s company ABKCO went one step further and purchased Bright Tunes for $587,000 which then prompted Harrison to sue.
In 1981, a judge declared that Klein wasn’t allowed to profit from the judgment and was entitled only to the $587,000 he paid for the company, all further proceeds from the case had to be remitted back to Harrison before the case dragged on until at least 1993 and the issue was finally solved.
The court case became an albatross around Harrison’s neck, one which prevented him from being able to showcase his true creativity. He later told Rolling Stone: “It’s difficult to just start writing again after you’ve been through that. Even now when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else.”
Following this landmark case, the music industry has seen a whole host of cases similar to this one, some of which have been settled quickly out of court to avoid a similar battle to the one Harrison found himself. Take, for example, The Rolling Stones song ‘Anybody Seen My Baby?’, Oasis hit ‘Shakermaker’ and The Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.
Harrison would then write and record ‘This Song’ which was inspired by the court case, the track has the line: “This tune has nothing ‘Bright’ about it” and “don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright”.
In a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon expressed his doubts about the notion of “subconscious” plagiarism, saying: “He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that… He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of letting him off.”
The case was groundbreaking for all the wrong reasons and saw the bitter fallout between Klein and Harrison become at the centre of the dispute rather than ‘My Sweet Lord’ — which had ended up playing second fiddle to Klein trying to put Harrison through hell.