A Beatle’s Copyright Faux Pas

By Jeffrey M. Kaden

Who doesn’t love the music of the Beatles? From 1962-1970, the Fab Four wrote and performed over 200 original songs, many of which were huge chart topping hits. From standards like Yesterday, In My Life, Hey Jude and Something, social commentaries such as Nowhere Man, Eleanor Rigby, A Day In The Life and Revolution to rock classics such as I Saw Her Standing There, Can’t Buy Me Love, Day Tripper and Get Back, the Beatles set the music bar incredibly high. With members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, they became widely regarded as the most influential rock band in history. Led by primarily by songwriters Lennon and McCartney, the Beatles as a band were an integral part of pop music’s evolution into an art form.

When the Fab Four broke up in 1970, each of the members enjoyed significant commercial success on their own. George Harrison, known as the “quiet” Beatle, who arguably had been stifled as a songwriter due to the rather dominating presence of Lennon and McCartney, released that very same year the triple album All Things Must Pass, a critically praised recording that produced his most successful hit single, My Sweet Lord. However, it also produced a legal headache for Harrison.

As the My Sweet Lord song covered the radio airwaves in the early 70’s, it became rather apparent that the song had a melody that was incredibly similar to a song that was released almost 10 years earlier, He’s So Fine, now owned by the struggling publisher Bright Tunes Music. So on February 10, 1971, as Harrison’s hit song was slowly falling from several weeks at the No. 1 position on the charts, Bright Tunes filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court.

In order to prove copyright infringement, Bright Tunes had to prove that Harrison had access to the copyrighted work. The song He’s So Fine, which was written by the songwriter and singer Ronnie Mack, was a huge hit in 1963 for the girl’s group The Chiffons. The Beatles, including Harrison, from the very beginning of their fame in the early 60’s, routinely discussed the influence of American music on their songwriting, both in interviews and during their live concerts. Therefore, there was little question of Harrison’s access to the He So Fine song. Indeed, Harrison freely admitted so during the subsequent trial.

Substantial similarity, the other cornerstone of proving copyright infringement, was apparently also not in dispute. Harrison denied deliberate plagiarism but has commented that “I wasn’t consciously aware of the similarity when I wrote the song…But once it 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.”

Harrison tried to settle the lawsuit. But a settlement was unfortunately never reached. The case finally came to trial in early 1976. Side by side, the two songs were carefully analyzed by the court. The trial ended with Harrison being found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism;” he had to pay over 1.5 million dollars in damages, which was an awful lot of money back then.

The My Sweet Lord saga, however, wasn’t all bad. Harrison also wrote This Song, a popular single all about his My Sweet Lord legal troubles; it eventually went to No. 25 on the pop charts in 1976. And to date thankfully, This Song has been free of any complaints that it infringed another’s copyright rights.