In 1971, Bright Tunes Music sued Harrison because this sounded too much like the 1963 Chiffons hit "He's So Fine
." Bright Tunes was controlled by The Tokens, who set it up when they formed the production company that recorded "He's So Fine" - they owned the publishing rights to the song.
During the convoluted court case, Harrison explained how he composed the song: He said that in December 1969, he was playing a show in Copenhagen, Denmark, with the group Delaney and Bonnie, whose piano player was Billy Preston (who contributed to some Beatles recordings). Harrison said that he started writing the song after a press conference when he slipped away and started playing some guitar chords around the words "Hallelujah" and "Hare Krishna." He then brought the song to the band, who helped him work it out as he came up with lyrics. When he returned to London, Harrison worked on Billy Preston's album Encouraging Words
. They recorded the song for the album, which was released on Apple Records later in 1970, and Harrison filed a copyright application for the melody, words and harmony of the song. Preston's version remained an album cut, and it was Harrison's single that was the huge hit and provoked the lawsuit, which was filed on February 10, 1971, while the song was still on the chart.
In further testimony, Harrison claimed he got the idea for "My Sweet Lord" from The Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day
," not "He's So Fine."
When the case was filed, Harrison's manager was Allen Klein, who negotiated with Bright Tunes on his behalf. The case was delayed when Bright Tunes went into receivership, and was not heard until 1976. In the meantime, Harrison and Klein parted ways in bitter fashion, and Klein began consulting Bright Tunes. Harrison offered to settle the case for $148,000 in January 1976, but the offer was rejected and the case brought to court.
The trial took place February 23-25, with various expert witnesses testifying. The key to the case was the musical pattern of the two songs, which were both based on two musical motifs: "G-E-D" and "G-A-C-A-C." "He's So Fine" repeated both motifs four times, "My Sweet Lord" repeated the first motif four times and the second motif three times. Harrison couldn't identify any other songs that used this exact pattern, and the court ruled that "the two songs are virtually identical." And while the judge felt that Harrison did not intentionally copy "My Sweet Lord," that was not a defense - thus Harrison was on the hook writing a similar song without knowing it. Harrison was found guilty of "subconscious plagiarism" in a verdict handed down on August 31, 1976.
Assessing damages in the case, the judge determined that "My Sweet Lord" represented 70% of the airplay of the All Things Must Pass
album, and came up with a total award of about $1.6 million. However, in 1978 Allen Klein's company ABKCO purchased Bright Tunes for $587,000, which prompted Harrison to sue. In 1981, a judge decided that Klein should not profit from the judgment, and was entitled to only the $587,000 he paid for the company - all further proceeds from the case had to be remitted back to Harrison. The case dragged on until at least 1993, when various administrative matters were finally settled.
The case was a burden for Harrison, who says he tried to settle but kept getting dragged back to court by Bright Tunes. After losing the lawsuit, he became more disenfranchised with the music industry, and took some time off from recording - after his 1976 album Thirty Three & 1/3
, he didn't release another until his self-titled album in 1979. He told Rolling Stone
, "It's difficult to just start writing again after you've been through that. Even now when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else."