We Are All Plagiarists


The Accidental Plagiarist in All of Us

Sleigh Bells, an indie rock band, has filed a copyright infringement suit against Demi Lovato, accusing the pop star of stealing, at the very least, the beat of one of its songs.

“The sonic qualities of portions of ‘Infinity Guitars’ and ‘Stars’ are at least substantially similar,” reads Sleigh Bells’s complaint, filed in a California court on Monday. “Stars” was released by Ms. Lovato.

While the producers of Ms. Lovato’s song have denied the claims, she joins a growing list of musicians accused of plagiarism, including Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and members of Led Zeppelin.

In response to these cases, Dolly Parton, a renowned country musician, described a creative process that some psychologists might refer to more formally as cryptomnesia.

“You don’t set out to try and steal anything, but it can happen,” Ms. Parton said in an interview with the BBC last week. “Especially in music, because there’s so much of it. If you write all the time, you’re going to collect those things and not know it.”

Cryptomnesia occurs when someone claims to have had an original thought (or in the case of a song, a melody or beat) but actually encountered the notion or sound earlier and forgot about it. To different degrees, we have all been guilty of cryptomnesia. And in a world flooded with information, we are especially prone to forgetting where ideas originated.

Perhaps you tell a friend, “Hey, I have an idea, let’s go to this new restaurant for dinner.” And then your friend says, “Yeah … I said we should do that a week ago.” You might be certain the idea was yours, when in reality, you had a lapse in memory, said Amanda C. Gingerich, an associate professor of psychology at Butler University.

[su_quote style=”modern-light”]“It’s a common error that we all do, all the time,” she said.[/su_quote]

Psychologists think cryptomnesia happens when we fail to register the source of information — what’s known as a source-monitoring error. As our brains amass memories, details are ranked. In this filtering process, the origins of facts often fall secondary to the facts themselves.

Cryptomnesia may actually be a byproduct of an otherwise efficient memory system, Dr. Gingerich said. “If you think about it, it’s not very cognitively efficient to remember every single detail of everything that happens to us.”

Alan S. Brown and Dana R. Murphy conducted earlyexperiments on cryptomnesia in the late 1980s at Southern Methodist University. They asked participants in a group setting to take turns naming items in different categories, including sports, musical instruments and four-legged animals.

Later, the researchers asked participants to recall the items they had come up with, and to brainstorm new examples. In both tasks, nearly three-fourths named at least one item that someone else in the group had already mentioned. Plagiarized responses accounted for 7 percent to 9 percent of the total.

More recent studies have confirmed that cryptomnesia is relatively easy to induce. In 2015, Gayle Dow, a psychology professor at Christopher Newport University, published astudy in which she asked participants to draw a picture of an alien creature. If she first showed them an illustration, they were more likely to include features from that drawing than when they had no image that might influence them.

In other experiments, Dr. Dow found that novices were more likely to commit accidental plagiarism than experts, and that people were more prone to cryptomnesia when multitasking.

As people are bombarded with more and more material, “how we store that information is so much more challenging,” Dr. Gingerich said.

“You scroll through a Facebook feed,” she added, “and there’s an infinite number of pieces of information coming from so many different sources.”

Joshua D. Landau, a psychology professor at York College of Pennsylvania, said there were ways to avoid being accidentally derivative by consciously reviewing materials. That can help to reduce rates of cryptomnesia by two-thirds, he said.

There’s no need to question yourself in real time, but to remember to go back deliberately, he added. “I don’t think musicians should sit there, play a chord sequence and go, “Well, that probably sounds like something else,’ ” he said.

Instead, every now and then, check each piece of information or material. “Ask yourself: ‘Where did I get this information from? Is it mine? Did I borrow it from someone else? Have I accurately shared the source?’ ”

It may be harder for musicians, because they’re “drawing on all sorts of different things,” Dr. Landau acknowledged. Still, he said, “if they’re careful, they may say, ‘Oh, that kind of sounds like that other song I heard on the radio.’ ”

Of course, conscious or not, plagiarism is still plagiarism — and cryptomnesia can get anyone in serious trouble. In a decision that set a precedent for later copyright cases, a court penalized George Harrison in 1976 for “subconsciously” plagiarizing a song from the Chiffons, “He’s So Fine,” in his song “My Sweet Lord.”

“Did Harrison deliberately use the music of ‘He’s so Fine?’ I do not believe he did,” said the presiding judge, Richard Owens.

“Nevertheless, it is clear that ‘My Sweet Lord’ is the very same song as ‘He’s So Fine’ with different words, and Harrison had access to ‘He’s So Fine,’” Judge Owens said. “This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.”

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