Earlier this week, it was announced that Tom Petty and his collaborator Jeff Lynne would be added to the songwriting credits for the Sam Smith song “Stay With Me”.
Petty and others had noted that the chorus of “Stay With Me” was very similar to Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down”. It is unclear how much in royalties Petty stands to make off his new credit or if back royalties will be paid.
The decision was reached without a lawsuit or the threat of legal action. According to a statement from Petty, Smith and his people, “Were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.”
Petty went on to say that he bore no ill will against Smith and considered the matter a “Musical accident.” This is mirrored by a representative for Smith who said the similarities were “a complete coincidence”.
However, the story has brought the idea of accidental or unconscious plagiarism back to the forefront, with many wondering whether it is possible to plagiarize the work of another without realizing you’re doing it.
The idea is commonly known as cryptomnesia (or kleptomnesia) and it is a situation where a forgotten memory returns, but the attribution for that idea is lost and it is believed to be new and novel.
Cryptomnesia has been replicated in a lab. In a 2012 study, psychologists had a small group draw up a short list within a category, share their ideas and then repeat their list. Some 75% of participants unintentionally plagiarized the ideas of others in their group, typically the person before them.
Incidents of cryptomnesia have been cited throughout history. For example, in 1892 a then-11-year-old Helen Keller published a story entitled “The Frost King”, which turned out to be an almost complete retelling of an earlier work, “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby. Keller swore she had never read the book and it was later discovered that a friend of hers had it in her house.
Nearly a century later, in 1976, George Harrison found himself in a similar situation when he was sued for copyright infringement over his 1970 song “My Sweet Lord”, which bore a strong resemblance to a 1963 song “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. The judge agreed Harrison had infringed, but also conceded that Harrison had done so unintentionally, putting the idea of cryptomnesia into case law as well.
But while cryptomnesia seems to be a real condition, it’s presence is limited almost exclusively to things that can be quickly and easily remembered. An item on a list, a general plot of a story or the chords of a song are all things that can be quickly remembered and then subsequently forgotten.
More complicated things, such as the exact phrasing of a section of text, a complex diagram or a large table of data are not typically subject to cryptomnesia because committing them to memory is either impossible or extremely difficult. This makes accidentally committing them to memory and wrongly recalling them as original almost impossible.
Still, there are some limited situations where it does appear to be possible to accidentally plagiarize and Smith’s is one of them. However, most of the cases of academic or literary plagiarism fall far outside those bounds.
While there are other ways that mistakes can lead to plagiarism allegations in research, such as missing attribution or quote marks, cryptomnesia is not likely one of them.