Is plagiarism even possible in music? Sure, multiple songs can sound similar to each other, and sometimes even sound virtually identical – but even then, the songs are usually at least a little bit different.
Despite constant innovation and evolution in music, there’s really only so much that can be done with musical notes, chords and whatnot. So when George Harrison got sued in February 1976 for plagiarizing a song by The Chiffons – and lost! – it no doubt set a shocking and disturbing precedent for court cases involving music.
In 1962, The Chiffons released “He’s So Fine,” which was composed by Ronald Mack and owned by Bright Tunes Music Corp. And this wasn’t some obscure single that went nowhere – it topped the Billboard Charts for five straight weeks.
Seven years later, after the disbanding of The Beatles, Harrison began work on his album All Things Must Pass. Part of his work included the song “My Sweet Lord,” which Harrison said began as a series of guitar chords played over the lyrics “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna” as he figured out the melodies.
Harrison finished the song as he worked in the studio as a supervisor on a Billy Preston recording. He ultimately released “My Sweet Lord” as the lead single to All Things Must Pass in November 1970, and the song of course hit #1 on the Billboard Charts.
Bright Tunes almost immediately saw the striking similarities between “My Sweet Lord” and “He’s So Fine,” and promptly sued Harrison and his labels and representatives – before the song even left the charts.
Initially, Harrison’s camp offered to just buy up the entire Bright Tunes catalog, which was countered with an offer of half the proceeds toward “My Sweet Lord” along with the surrendering of its copyrights. But of course, the case ended up going to trial.
While the judge and expert witnesses gave their opinions on the similarities between the songs, Harrison himself testified and admitted he was very familiar with “He’s So Fine” prior to writing “My Sweet Lord” and he subconsciously knew the melodies and patterns in the structures.
As a result, the judge ultimately ruled “subconscious plagiarism” in the case and ruled in favor of Bright Tunes. Harrison tried to fight the ruling on the basis of a lack of hard evidence that he intended to rip “He’s So Fine” off, but the court struck it down because the case did not require such proof.
Listen to the two songs and judge for yourself. There’s no doubt they are very similar, and practically identical in spots – especially in the main vocal hooks. But even if Harrison “subconsciously” plagiarized the Chiffons song, is that really egregious enough for him to have to surrender millions of dollars to Bright Tunes? It’s not like anyone would argue that Harrison wasn’t capable of writing his own songs.
The Chiffons, “He’s So Fine”
George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord”