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AT LARGE: Sue me, sue you blues

AT LARGE: Sue me, sue you blues

It's a funny sort of concept, "owning" an idea. The notion that, once you've thought of something, no-one else is allowed to think of the same thing. Quite possibly the two most litigious industries in the world are music and technology. No doubt because these are two industries whose sole valuable property is creativity.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the most notoriously litigious companies in both industries are called Apple. The Beatles' company sued Steve Jobs's company the very minute it tried to do business under a name that both of them pinched from a fairly common piece of fruit. It was a frivolous suit, arguing that, in 1977, someone could buy a computer in the mistaken impression that it was somehow related to a band that hadn't existed since 1970. Of course, like all frivolous lawsuits, it was successful - to this day Apple Computer isn't supposed to meddle in the music business.

George Harrison ended up in court in 1971, when he released My Sweet Lord, one of the all-time-classic rock songs. No doubt you know it - it's very catchy. Unfortunately, it bears a bit of a resemblance to He's So Fine by The Chiffons, one of the all-time-classic rock songs. The Chiffons, or at least their publishing company, sued Harrison for plagiarism.

Of course, he defended himself. He knew, because he wrote it, that the ideas behind My Sweet Lord did not come from The Chiffons. What's more, the two songs were not the same - they have different chords, different harmonies, and very different lyrics. But the judge had to admit that, you know, darned if they don't sound the same. Harrison was found guilty of "unconscious plagiarism" and had to pay compensation to The Chiffons' publisher.

The other Apple had a similar problem back in the nineties, when it signed over a licence for Microsoft to use some elements of the Mac interface in Windows. Realising it hadn't a legal leg to stand on in terms of the actual code or design elements, it sued on the basis that it should have exclusive rights to the ideas behind the graphical interface - what its lawyers called the "look and feel" of the Mac. It was a very silly lawsuit, akin to saying "no, they're not the same program, but hum them both together and your toe taps just the same".

Apple lost its suit. Perhaps it should have hired The Chiffons' lawyers.


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