A reader writes:
George Harrison did copy "He's So Fine," but not "with impunity," as your reader claims. He was sued for it – and lost, paying $587,000, the cost of the copyright (not to mention lawyer fees). The case, Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, took about 10 years to wind its way through the courts, and it's now taught in most introductory copyright law classes to illustrate the point that, even if – like Harrison - you claim not to have consciously copied, you can still be found to have infringed. Some more detail on the case (including snippets of the songs for those who want to actually hear the two songs!) can be found at the excellent Music Plagiarism Law Project.
Another defends Harrison:
The fact that George did not need to plagiarize to create great music is self-evident. His creativity speaks for itself, having penned some of the most iconic songs in rock history, including "Something", "Here Comes the Sun" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". Or did he steal those, and all the other wonderful songs he wrote, too? And to call "My Sweet Lord" "the most obviously plagiarized song in rock ‘n roll history" is to turn a tone-deaf ear to much of the work of Led Zeppelin, who have been widely (and justly) criticized as the rock era's plagiarists and thieves extraordinaire (just ask Willie Dixon). And I challenge your reader to provide one shred of credible evidence that John Lennon ever made the statement "he knew exactly what he was doing when he stole the original song").
Said reader must have been referring to this:
In a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon expressed his doubt of the notion of "subconscious" plagiarism: "He must have known, you know. He's smarter than that. It's irrelevant, actually—only on a monetary level does it matter. He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off."
I have never heard your previous correspondent's Lennon quote, but I was amused as "Imagine" – a song I much love, though I know you have doubts – while not plagiarized, always seemed to me heavily inspired by the fairly unique chord structure of "Everybody Plays the Fool" (IV-V-I-III7, if anyone is paying attention). And finally, as seems de rigueur in moments like this, I have to quote T.S. Eliot: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."
1) Harrison didn't deny being inspired by other songs, but argued in court that he was inspired by the gospel song "Oh Happy Day," and that "He's So Fine" was likely similarly but independently inspired. "Oh Happy Day" dates back to the 18th century, but the version [seen above] was a huge hit in 1969, just before "My Sweet Lord" appeared.
2) George was somewhat more obviously ecumenical with the song in concert – in his Japanese concerts during the '90s he'd include Buddha and Jesus in his name checks, and there's at least one '70s concert where he adds Allah during something of an extended improvisation of the song.
Another may have attended that very concert:
I saw Harrison on his 1974 tour (which was wonderful, despite the dreadful reviews). During his song "Awaiting On You All," it came to a long vamp where George called on the audience to chant the name of their Lord. So, yes, Krishna, if so inclined. But I distinctly remember him asking Christians to chant "Oh Christ! Oh Christ!" He said something like, "It's not cursing, it's chanting. Show your love." He was literally encouraging his audience of all faiths to join together to praise God.