Former Beatle George Harrison Loses Plagiarism Lawsuit Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

George Harrison, formerly of the British rock-pop band the Beatles, lost a plagiarism lawsuit brought by the publishers of the song “He’s So Fine,” originally recorded by the Chiffons in 1963. Harrison’s melodic adaptation, “My Sweet Lord,” included on his 1970 album All Things Must Pass, was deemed “unconscious plagiarism” by a judge. The case raised concerns of artistic creativity and doubts about the integrity of songwriters and composers, including Harrison, and affected him deeply.

Summary of Event

On February 10, 1971, Bright Tunes, Inc., filed a lawsuit against rock-pop star and songwriter George Harrison and his companies Harrisongs Music, Inc. (United States), and Harrisongs Music, Ltd. (United Kingdom), for his use of several musical phrases from a tune originally written by Ronald Mack and recorded by the Chiffons. The Chiffons’ song, “He’s So Fine,” had been a pop hit in 1963 in the United States, although most critics agree that the tune was not well known in Great Britain. Both Harrison and American soul musician Billy Preston, who would collaborate with Harrison on the new version of the song, agreed that they were familiar with the original. [kw]Harrison Loses Plagiarism Lawsuit, Former Beatle George (Sept. 1, 1976) [kw]Plagiarism Lawsuit, Former Beatle George Harrison Loses (Sept. 1, 1976) Harrison, George Beatles Preston, Billy Owen, Richard Klein, Allen Harrison, George Beatles Preston, Billy Owen, Richard Klein, Allen [g]United States;Sept. 1, 1976: Former Beatle George Harrison Loses Plagiarism Lawsuit[01620] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Sept. 1, 1976: Former Beatle George Harrison Loses Plagiarism Lawsuit[01620] [c]Law and the courts;Sept. 1, 1976: Former Beatle George Harrison Loses Plagiarism Lawsuit[01620] [c]Music and performing arts;Sept. 1, 1976: Former Beatle George Harrison Loses Plagiarism Lawsuit[01620] [c]Plagiarism;Sept. 1, 1976: Former Beatle George Harrison Loses Plagiarism Lawsuit[01620]

Harrison’s version of the song, “My Sweet Lord,” was not released until the end of 1970 and was on his album All Things Must Pass. In December, the song became the most popular selling single in the United States by a former member of the Beatles, and it reached the top of the charts in Great Britain the following month. “My Sweet Lord” was rereleased in 1976 on another album, The Best of George Harrison, and again in 2001 on a new release of All Things Must Pass. Harrison rerecorded the song.

George Harrison.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

After leaving the Beatles, Harrison assembled another group of musicians, including Preston. One evening in 1969, while the group was in Copenhagen, Denmark, Harrison and Preston whiled away the time waiting for a press conference to begin by playing some random chords on their guitars. Harrison, who had recently returned from a religious pilgrimage to India, began to sing the phrase “my sweet lord” over and over as a mantra. Eventually, he settled on a tune and repeated the words “Oh, my Lord, My sweet lord,” “Hallelujah,” and “Hare Krishna” as he picked on the guitar strings. Preston picked up the phrasing and began to play on his own guitar. The notes finally coalesced into a “G-D-C” phrase, followed by a G-A-C-A-C phrase.

After a number of revisions, the addition of several grace notes, and a rearrangement of the notes to suit the words, the song “My Sweet Lord” was written down as sheet music. At a later time, the song was then recorded in a studio, perhaps played by Preston, and was added to Harrison’s new album All Things Must Pass. The album began to sell well, and Bright Tunes, the owner of the copyright for “He’s So Fine,” filed suit in U.S. federal court, accusing Harrison of plagiarizing the original song’s melody for “My Sweet Lord.”

During court proceedings in the case of Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music (1976) Harrison was asked directly by U.S. federal district judge Richard Owen, who was knowledgeable in music as well as law, whether he had knowingly plagiarized. Harrison said that he had not, but agreed that the melodies of the two songs were similar, although to his ear they were not identical. Owen, a 1950 graduate of Harvard Law School, was a gifted composer of a number of operas. He tried to determine if there had been conscious plagiarism by Harrison. Accordingly, the judge sat down with Harrison and together they sang the phrases of the two songs to see if they were indeed identical. Harrison revealed as much as he could remember about how the song was composed. Even such intensive scrutiny did not make for an easy disposition of the case.

Efforts to determine authorship might be understood by looking at an example: the Bach-inspired Ave Maria by composer Charles Gounod. Gounod had set his Ave Maria to a melody from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (1722). Such a use is not considered plagiarism because the composer attributed Bach as his inspiration for the work. A case becomes especially difficult when a composer borrows only a few notes of an earlier work. In effect, plagiarism can be vexing in cases in which a composer uses less, not more, of an original work and does so without attribution. However, as in Harrison’s case, that “use” without attribution was not necessarily conscious or intentional.

On September 1, 1976, Owen reached his decision: Plagiarism did occur, but it was “unintentional” because Harrison had so internalized the music that it had become part of his unconscious. Thus, he had not been completely aware of what he was humming when he began to sing the words “my sweet lord.” In other words, he did not know he was humming the tune from “He’s So Fine.”

The court next had to determine damages. This second phase of the trial was scheduled for February, 1981, because after the first phase of the suit ended, Bright Tunes sold its copyright of the song to ABKCO Industries, owned by Allen Klein, a former business manager of the Beatles and Harrison’s manager at the time the suit was filed in 1971. The purchase of Bright Tunes complicated the case, making it difficult to determine who should receive the money and how much should be awarded. Also, by this time, Klein was no longer Harrison’s manager. The judge determined that the damage amount requested, $1,599,987, was fair.

Judge Owen ordered that the money be held in a trust, and he determined that Harrison should pay $587,000 plus interest. The decision was upheld on appeal in 1983. The case continued for eight more years, as the two sides argued over other legal questions, including the legal significance, if any, of Klein’s past connection with Harrison and whether or not a lawsuit brought in England should figure into the settlement in the U.S. court case. In 1991, the case was back in appellate court and then returned to Judge Owen for further litigation. Two years later all parties agreed to resolve at least part of the issue—the disbursement of some disputed funds.

Impact

Commentaries on the plagiarism case against Harrison make it clear that proving plagiarism in music is extremely difficult. In a written work, an author who uses three or more words from another source must put those words in quotation marks and cite the source to avoid plagiarism. In music, the standard is more difficult. Composers often begin their creations by humming melodies, unaware of their sources. This was the case in the Harrison suit. Even a trained musician could find it difficult to conclude that a piece of borrowed music was so close to the original that it constituted plagiarism or whether the addition of new notes, chords, or harmonies would distinguish the piece so that it could stand alone.

Avoiding plagiarism in music composition is complex. Many universities now include courses on how to avoid music plagiarism, and in a move that seems to sound a warning, Columbia University School of Law compiled a list of hundreds of music copyright-infringement cases filed since the 1840’s. Harrison, George Beatles Preston, Billy Owen, Richard Klein, Allen

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frith, Simon, and Lee Marshall, eds. Music and Copyright. 2d ed. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. A comprehensive examination of issues of copyright and plagiarism in the making and distribution of music. Contains brief discussion of the Harrison-Bright Tunes Music case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, George. I, Me, Mine. San Francisco, Calif.: Chronicle Books, 2002. Harrison discusses his youth, early days as a musician, pilgrimages to India and reverence for Hindu mysticism, and even his love of gardening. Lyrics to more than eighty songs, many in his own hand and with commentary. Fifty archival photographs of Harrison with the Beatles and solo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leng, Simon. While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Music of George Harrison. Milwaukee, Wis.: Hal Leonard, 2006. Contains interviews with many of Harrison’s music collaborators. This book was originally planned to celebrate Harrison’s music and is now a memorial and tribute.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Steve. A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatle’s Song. New York: Harper, 1999. Arranged by album, this book examines incidents in the lives of each Beatle and how those experiences influenced their music. Turner interviewed many people to find out the stories behind the songs. Contains more than two hundred photographs.

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