On this day in 1976, George Harrison was found guilty of 'subconscious plagiarism' of the Ronnie Mack song “He's So Fine” when writing “My Sweet Lord”. Harrison’s earnings from the song were awarded to Mack's estate; The Chiffons then recorded their own version of “My Sweet Lord”. Now that was very nice of them - but it didn’t do as well as Georges’ version.
George had become the first Beatle to score a solo #1 hit, (the song was originally intended for Billy Preston), with the guitarist enjoying five weeks at the top of the UK charts. It then went on to be a massive worldwide hit, topping the charts in nine other countries, including the US.
Anyway, that word -- plagiarism -- it's every songwriters nightmare. You spend years stuck away in your bedroom, trying to write a hit - and when you do, someone from the other side of the planet pipes up “that’s the same as my song! I wrote it before you”.
On coming up with the melody to “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney apparently kept playing it to anyone who would listen, saying, “Have you heard this before?” Convinced he had nicked it from somewhere. Until he decided to claim it for himself.
The rule of thumb seems to be, the bigger the band, the more writs you get.
In 2008, shortly after Coldplay’s latest release was all over the airways, guitarist Joe Satriani filed a copyright infringement suit in Los Angeles federal court against Coldplay, claiming the Coldplay song "Viva la Vida" includes "substantial original portions" of the Satriani song "If I Could Fly" from his 2004 album, Is There Love in Space? Now come on, do you really think that Chris and Gwyeth sit around of an evening listening to Joe Satriani records?
Coldplay denied the allegation and the case was dismissed by the California Central District Court, with both parties potentially agreeing to an out-of-court settlement.
But these are just the tip of the iceberg.
Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker, Jr. for plagiarism, citing that Parker stole the melody of the song "Ghostbusters" (the theme from the movie of the same name), from Lewis's 1983 song "I Want A New Drug". Lewis dropped the lawsuit after the two parties settled out-of-court.
When The Beach Boys released "Surfin' USA", Chuck Berry's music publisher Arc Music sued over what was a note-for-note cover of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen", and was eventually granted co-writing credit for Berry, and royalties from the record.
John Lennon was also sued by Chuck Berry's publisher, Big Seven, over the lyric, "Here comes ol' flat-top. He come groovin' up slowly," in the song, "Come Together". In Chuck Berry's song, "You Can't Catch Me", the lyric is, "Here come up flat top. He was groovin' up slowly." In 1973, a settlement was reached whereby Lennon agreed to record three of Big Seven's songs on his next album.
But not everybody goes to court
In 1993 Killing Joke started legal proceedings against Nirvana alleging that the riff for the latter's song "Come as You Are" was copied from the riff for their song "Eighties". The lawsuit was dropped after the sudden death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain.
Tom Petty has a rather relaxed view on all of this as he recently told Rolling Stone: “...a lot of Rock n Roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took 'American Girl' [for their song "Last Nite"], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, 'OK, good for you.' It doesn’t bother me.”
And when some publisher noticed that a portion of the Bruce Springsteen single, "Radio Nowhere." sounded similar to Tommy Tutone's 1982 hit, "867-5309/Jenny” they contacted the writer.
Tommy Heath's response was "I'm really honored at a similarity, if any, I think there's too much suing in the world now".