40 Years Ago: George Harrison Found Guilty of ‘My Sweet Lord’ Plagiarism
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Released in November 1970, “My Sweet Lord” made George Harrison the first of the Beatles to have a solo No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was an appeal for a closer relationship with God. Harrison would need it.
A few months after its release, Harrison was sued for copyright infringement by the publisher of “He’s So Fine,” a 1963 hit for the Chiffons. On Aug. 31, 1976, Judge Richard Owen of the United States District Court found Harrison had “subconsciously” copied the Chiffons’ tune.
Harrison was, in fact, inspired by “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers when he wrote “My Sweet Lord” during a December 1969 European tour with Delaney & Bonnie. Harrison first offered “My Sweet Lord” to Billy Preston, who recorded it for his Encouraging Words LP. After the Beatles split up, Harrison recorded his own version, which became the first single from the triple-disc All Things Must Pass.
Bright Tunes Music, the publisher of “He’s So Fine,” sued Harrison in February 1971 on behalf of Ronnie Mack, the song’s writer. Mack died in 1963, shortly after the Chiffons’ tune became a No. 1 hit in the States. The song was a modest hit in the U.K., reaching No. 12. At trial, Harrison admitted that he was familiar with “He’s So Fine.”
Bright Tunes cited the similarity of Mack’s “I don’t know how I’m gonna do it” with Harrison’s “I really want to see you” as evidence that Harrison copied Mack’s song. Even the fact that each song title has three syllables was said to show the relationship between the two.
“I wasn’t consciously aware of the similarity between ‘He’s So Fine’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ when I wrote the song, as it was more improvised and not so fixed,” Harrison wrote in I Me Mine. “Although when my version of the song came out and started to get a lot of airplay, people started talking about it, and it was then I thought, ‘Why didn’t I realize?’ It would have been very easy to change a note here or there, and not affect the feeling of the record.”
Judge Owen, who analyzed the music of both songs, heard testimony by Harrison and expert witnesses from both sides. The judge ruled that “it is perfectly obvious to the listener that in musical terms, the two songs are virtually identical.”
The judge found that Harrison “subconsciously” plagiarized “He’s So Fine.” “Did Harrison deliberately use the music of ‘He’s So Fine’? I do not believe he did so deliberately,” he said. “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.”
“George was very unlucky,” Ringo Starr told Melody Maker. “There’s no doubt that the tune is similar, but how many songs have been written with other melodies in mind? George’s version is much heavier than the Chiffons – he might have done it with the original in the back of his mind, but he’s just very unlucky that someone wanted to make it a test case in court.”
Years of appeals and litigation over damages continued until March 1998. “I don’t feel guilty or bad about it,” wrote Harrison. “In fact, it saved many a heroin addict’s life. I know the motive behind writing the song in the first place, and its effect far exceeded the legal hassle.”
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