The Subconscious Mistake That Cost George Harrison Dearly

Music copyright remains one of the most complicated issues in the business, especially regarding sampling. It is also utterly hard to draw a line between where inspiration ends and straight-up plagiarism begins. All in all, being inspired by something is almost inescapable and not quite the same as copying.

Considering that good old music has formed the basis of numerous great new tracks, labeling even the slightest inspiration as plagiarism doesn’t seem reasonable. Even the best musicians have been inspired by someone else’s work while trying to create something new, yet they have managed to produce an original brand new piece of work, although they have added something from those already in existence.

However, no one can deny that it is still challenging to decide where the inspiration really ends and plagiarism starts. So not surprisingly, the majority of artists have struggled with legal battles regarding copyright issues. The late Beatle George Harrison also found himself at ends with the law due to the suspiciously familiar melody of his 1970 song ‘My Sweet Lord.’

Being Harrison’s first single as a solo artist, the track achieved substantial commercial success by topping charts worldwide. It also became the first number 1 single released by a former Beatle. The song was surrounded by religious connotations and references taken from both Christian and Hindu terminology. So, even though it seemed to stand out with its original theme and lyrics, George was sued for copyright infringement by the Chiffons songwriter Ronnie Mack’s publisher, Bright Tunes Music Corporation, in 1971.

The corporation claimed that George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ had been melodically influenced by the Chiffons’ 1963 chart-topper ‘He’s So Fine.’ Considering the piece’s release date, Harrison had been routinely performing classical American tunes with the Beatles then. Thus, it is almost certain that he had access to the previous work, which he would also admit during his trial.

Yet, it took years of the copyright case to go to the United States district court. In 1976, Harrison attended the trial with a guitar and musical experts to present his evidence on the allegation of plagiarism. The late musician’s side claimed that George had taken inspiration from ‘Oh Happy Day’ by the Edwin Hawkins Singers while creating ‘My Sweet Lord.’

During the trial, Harrison also admitted being familiar with ‘He’s So Fine,’ but said that he had made a subconscious mistake about the similarity between the two songs. In his autobiography ‘I Me Mine,’ the late Beatles wrote, “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.”

Sharing his regret about the little changes he could make, George noted, “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.”

Nonetheless, despite the legal battle, George Harrison never regretted composing ‘My Sweet Lord.’ He also said in the same book, “I don’t feel bad or guilty about it. It saved many a heroin addict’s life. I know the motive behind writing the song in the first place far exceeds the legal hassle.”

The lawsuit was finally settled in 1981. Though the late musician was initially ordered to pay $1.6 million, it was later lowered to $587,000, leading Harrison to pay a dearly cost for his subconscious mistake. The case actually became one of the longest in US history because it did not officially close until 1998. Following the resolution of damages and litigations, George obtained complete ownership of both songs in the UK and North America.