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The late and great George Harrison (“the quiet one,” my favorite) was sued in 1971 for copyright infringement for what Harrison later dubbed “subconscious plagiarism.” To make an over-twenty-year case short, various fellows in designer suits and (we can safely assume) unfortunate seventies hair accused Harrison of plagiarizing the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine,” maintaining that Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” from his album (1970), was effectively the same song.
Ultimately musicologists on the prosecution’s payroll found that “He’s So Fine” consisted of two basic musical “phrases” (motif “a” and motif “b”), the former consisting of four repetitions of the notes G–E–D and the latter of G–A–C–A–C, and then found that “My Sweet Lord” shared the same harmonic genetic code.
In higher academic circles we would call such students promising “epistemologists” (i.e., those who study how one knows), but we are more likely to think of such students as “pains in the ass” (i.e., annoying people who cause emotional stress). Were I ever to write a novel, I would attempt to write one that Nabokov would have approved of.
Teachers, realizing the daunting significance of these impossible, or, at least, exhausting questions, end up supplying rather insufficient answers to these pains in the ass, such as that of the aforementioned middle-school teacher. Were I in a rock band, I would try to sound as much as possible like the Replacements. [W]e study with practitioners we never get to meet.
One of the most famous cases of contemporary subconscious plagiarism doesn’t involve a “writer” in the strictest sense, but a Beatle.
Harrison paid a lot of money to the suits; the case was retried, and so on until the nineties.
He finally resolved the matter by buying the rights to “He’s So Fine.” But the fascinating thing for me was Harrison’s defense.
Consequently, teachers Google incongruously melodious extracts from suspected students’ papers, find that the words are ripped verbatim from an old Helen Vendler lecture, and subsequently let slip the hounds of comeuppance in the form of public embarrassment, failing grades, and phone calls home.
And what of Soft Plagiarism (SP), pilfering another’s There are, however, always a few students who ask about the nature of ideas and their origins and argue in an inchoate but sincere fashion that knowledge is inherently derivative and communal, and consequently they would have to cite every statement made in their composition—nay, would have to cite every thought they have —to avoid SP, and would therefore be subject to an infinite regression. I’m quite comfortable with citing my inspirations for aspiration, with imitating and trying to rise to the occasion of my literary and artistic heroes.
WEST PALM BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 14: Karen Brown (L) and Douglas Brown hold hands as they are wed during a group Valentine’s day wedding at the National Croquet Center on February 14, 2013 in West Palm Beach, Florida.