The Story Of George Harrison’s $1.6M Mistake
George Harrison for the music video of This Song, which was written in response to the My Sweet Lord lawsuit - George Harrison / Youtube
Copyright is a tricky thing to tackle, especially for those in the music industry. As they all say, music is constantly evolving, but this “evolution” needs to take inspiration from some earlier form in order to advance. Thus, plagiarism. Beats, rhythms, compositions, and lyrics are just some of the most commonly-plagiarized content. This can either be intentional or coincidental, as what happened with George Harrison.
One particular song of his from his solo years, 1970’s “My Sweet Lord” from All Things Must Pass, became one of the singer-songwriter’s prime cuts and concert staples. But Bright Tunes Music didn’t share the same thoughts, suing him in the United States’ District Court for plagiarism. The song that was allegedly plagiarized was The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”, saying that the “Hmm, My Lord” hook was similar to the girl group’s own hook section, “He’s so fine”.
Long story short, Harrison was summoned to court after a handful of attempted settlements. He was grilled by attorneys and musicologists alike, with the three notes of the respective songs being compared side by side. Six months after the trial, a decision was reached by presiding Judge Richard in favor of Bright Tunes, making Harrison guilty of plagiarism. In a statement, the judge said, “Did Harrison deliberately use the music of “He’s So Fine”? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that “My Sweet Lord” is the very same song as “He’s So Fine” with different words, and Harrison had access to “He’s So Fine”. This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.”
The judge believed that Harrison did not intend to plagiarize the song, but copyright laws do not require intent to infringe, only if the active infringement itself took place. Sneaky ex-Beatles manager Allen Klein, who was dismissed by Harrison during the numerous negotiation attempts with the other camp, bought the rights to “He’s So Fine”, now assuming the position of the plaintiff from being a defendant. This cost Harrison a whopping $1.6 million in damages.
According to Harrison himself, the experience terrified him so much that it made him “so paranoid about writing that I thought, ‘God, I don’t wanna even touch the guitar and the piano in case I’m touching somebody’s note!”