The damages verdict

After 20 years, eventually the judge awarded the song to me… and the money that had been taken for ‘My Sweet Lord’. So I suddenly end up with ‘He’s So Fine’!
George Harrison

Having lost the court case alleging plagiarism, George Harrison was liable for damages. The judge was responsible for deciding the amount; he began by determining the income generated by ‘My Sweet Lord’, and how much of that song was derived from ‘He’s So Fine’.

The case was originally scheduled to be heard in November 1976. However, it was delayed until February 1981 due to the sale of Bright Tunes to Allen Klein’s ABKCO company, and with it all litigation claims. Klein and Harrison had parted company professionally by this point, and Klein had offered to sell some of the rights to He’s So Fine to Harrison for $700,000.

Harrison argued that Klein had acted improperly by purchasing Bright Tunes, and amended his plea to request that Klein be disqualified from receiving any damages.

The district judge ruled that Klein was not entitled to profit from his purchase of Bright Tunes (and, by extension, ‘He’s So Fine’), a decision that was upheld by the appeals court. The court also found that Klein had acted improperly by sharing financial information about ‘My Sweet Lord’ to Bright Tunes before the question of liability was settled, and that he should not be rewarded by the court for breaching the fiduciary duty owed to Harrison.

Four main sources of revenue were considered in the damages hearing: mechanical royalties (the amount paid to a song’s publisher by a record company to release it); performance royalties (revenue derived from broadcasting); sheet music and folio sales; and profits from Apple Records.

Performance royalties and sheet music sales were determined at $359,794 and $67,675 respectively, according to accounting records. The other amounts were harder to ascertain.

Mechanical royalties were established at $260,103, including single and related album sales. However, the judge noted that the song’s popularity would have effectively increased revenue for the other compositions on the All Things Must Pass album, and for the single’s b-side, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’.

The court looked closely at the amount of North American radio play that each song on the album had received. Of the 22 songs, only nine had been played, and ‘My Sweet Lord’ had represented 70% of the album’s total airplay. The judge therefore ruled that 70% of mechanical royalties from the single, and 50% from those for All Things Must Pass, were attributable to ‘My Sweet Lord’.

The compilation The Best Of George Harrison was also a factor. The judge eventually determined that the gross earnings attributable to ‘My Sweet Lord’ for the single amounted to $54,526; $588,188 for the album All Things Must Pass; and $6,887 from The Best Of George Harrison. This amounted to a total of $646,601 in the USA and Canada.

A further consideration was profits for Apple generated from ‘My Sweet Lord’. Using a similar formula as before for the single and two albums, the judge found the resultant earnings were $130,629 from the single; $925,731 from All Things Must Pass; and $21,598 from The Best Of George Harrison.

The total gross earnings for ‘My Sweet Lord’ were determined by the court as $2,152,028. This was reduced to $2,133,316 after agent’s fees were considered.

Since the plagiarism had been subconscious (unintentional), and Harrison had added original elements to the song, he was not liable to pay the full amount to Bright Tunes. The judge decreed that three quarters of the song’s success was due to to the plagiarised elements, with a further quarter due to Harrison’s contributions. A sum of $1,599,987 was settled upon as the amount earned by ‘My Sweet Lord’ which could be attributed to ‘He’s So Fine’.

On 19 February 1981 the court decided that Harrison should pay ABKCO $587,000 instead of the $1.6 million, and would also receive the rights to ‘He’s So Fine’. The figure of $587,000 was the same sum paid by Klein in 1978 to Bright Tunes for the rights to the song.

Klein was ordered to hold the rights to ‘He’s So Fine’ in trust for Harrison, which would then be transferred to the former Beatle upon full payment plus interest. This decision was upheld on appeal.

Litigation continued well into the 1990s, as the finer points of the settlement were argued over. The case was finally concluded in March 1998.

The fallout

Harrison was evidently deeply troubled by the litigation. He wrote and recorded ‘This Song’, which appeared on his Thirty Three & ⅓ album, about his courtroom experiences. It contains the lines “This song has nothing ‘Bright’ about it”; “My expert tells me it’s okay”; and “This song ain’t black or white, and as far as I know don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright”.

In an October 1976 edition of Melody Maker, Ringo Starr spoke to journalist Ray Coleman about the legal episode. “George was very unlucky,” Starr said. “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. If I’d written ‘He’s So Fine’, I guess I’d have sued if I’d wanted some money.

In his 1980 Playboy magazine interview, John Lennon doubted that Harrison really had subconsciously plagiarised ‘He’s So Fine’. “He walked right into it,” Lennon told David Sheff. “He knew what he was doing. He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that… George could have changed a few bars in that song and nobody could have ever touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”

Earlier that year, Harrison’s book I Me Mine was published by Genesis Publications. Speaking of his legal troubles surrounding ‘My Sweet Lord’, Harrison said: “I don’t feel guilty or bad about it, 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.”