The ABA Journal finally provided a brief, clear, fascinating account of exactly how it was that George Harrison was found to have “unintentionally” plagiarized the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” when he wrote his biggest hit single as a solo artist, “My Sweet Lord.”
It also clarifies what I always suspected: when courts have to decide the question of when a song is too much “like” another, anything can happen.
George Harrison’s first solo album “All Things Must Pass” was released in 1970, the same year the Beatles officially broke up, with “My Sweet Lord” the triple album’ s signature hit. I remember the first time I heard the song, and thinking, “Wow, that reminds me a lot of ‘He’s So Fine’!” Others thought so as well, including Bright Tunes Music Corp., which held the copyright on the Chiffons’ 1963 classic. It sued Harrison’s publishing company, Harrisongs Music Ltd., for copyright infringement.
As litigation proceeded, Harrison admitted in court filings that he was familiar with “He’s So Fine”—how could he not be?—but denied that he had used it to create “My Sweet Lord.” At trial, Harrison brought his guitar to the witness stand to demonstrate how he had composed “My Sweet Lord.” This, onlookers agreed, was sufficiently convincing to persuade the judge that George was not guilty of intentional infringement.
Still, the court awarded $1.6 million to Bright Tunes for unintentional infringement, a lesser penalty but hardly insignificant. Then occurred an outrageous ethical breach that should have set off everyone’s ethics alarms, especially the perpetrator’s, who apparently had none.
. Harrison’s former manager, Allen Klein, bought the rights to “He’s So Fine” before George could pay the damages, and continued the lawsuit. The slimy stunt backfired: the court reduced the damages down to $587,000, citing Klein’s unethical breach of fiduciary duty against a former employer and his blatant conflict of interest. Various legal maneuvers related to the damages kept the controversy alive until 1998, just three years before Harrison died.
The subconscious plagiarism concept that snared George Harrison opened a legal and ethical can of worms that have been squirming ever since. “My Sweet Lord” established an inviting precedent to allow musicians and publishers to take a shot at grabbing the profits of any popular song that contains elements reminiscent of theirs. Even when the claims have no merit, the specter of George’s public embarrassment and his 27 year legal ordeal often induces artists to preemptively settle by giving the complaining copyright holders co-writing credit or a share of the royalties.
It is officially a mess. The ABA Journal quotes copyright lawyer Howard King, partner at the firm King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano which has handled several such lawsuits, as saying, “There’s no guidance available. There’s no definitive way to determine whether or not a song will later be found to have copied another one.”
UPDATE: My friend and indefatigable Beatles historian David Elias adds this: “George eventually purchased Bright Tunes when it went on the block… so ended up paying royalties to himself!”
Now here are The Chiffons. I must confess that I’ve always thought their song was the better of the two. It was written by Ronnie Mack, his only hit, mostly because he died of Hodgkin’s Disease the same year the Chiffons recorded “He’s So Fine.” He was only 23. “Jimmy Mack, when are you comin’ back?” was written as an homage to Mack, and became a major hit for Martha and the Vandellas in in 1967.