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When Musicians Unintentionally Steal

Sam Smith's hit single sounds an awful lot like a Tom Petty song, but that doesn't make him some kind of artistic hack.
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Sam Smith performing live. (Photo: Sam Smith)

Sam Smith performing live. (Photo: Sam Smith)

Imagine your favorite musician, actor, filmmaker, or painter. Undoubtedly, each one grew up idolizing—emulating, even—their artistic heroes. As such, if you pay close enough attention, it's not hard to see those influences permeating the artist’s work. But at what point does paying homage to source material become a swindle?

For young British crooner Sam Smith, that line was crossed last October when Tom Petty and songwriter Jeff Lynne noticed that Smith’s single “Stay With Me” was too reminiscent of Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down.” (It was announced on Monday that Petty now has a songwriter credit and will receive royalties.) While the two songs have eerily similar choruses, it raises an interesting question: Are artists in these scenarios always deliberately plagiarizing, or is there something subtler, perhaps subconscious, at play?

There is, as it turns out, a known phenomenon, called cryptomnesia, where previously stored memories present themselves as original creations. We’ve all experienced something like this: You’re asked your opinion on a newsworthy subject and, perhaps unconsciously, find yourself parroting an op-ed you read earlier in the day.

For decades, it was assumed that these suppressed memories could only be recalled in alerted states of consciousness. That changed when, in 1965, Dr. F. Kräupl Taylor conducted some of the first research to explore the idea that these thoughts might be lying dormant, sometimes sneaking into our consciousness:

When an event consists of information about some original creation in the world of art, literature and thought, and the logical memory of the event has deteriorated to the point at which the information is no longer recognized as a memory, cryptomnesia may give rise to unintended plagiarism. This happens when the logical memory is activated fortuitously or by some mental scanning process so that the information appears in consciousness as a cryptomnesically unfamiliar train of thought whose originality and value is appreciated. The train of thought may then be proudly, though mistakenly, claimed as a personal creation.

Of course, this is not to say that plagiarism doesn’t exist. It’s hard to listen to “Ice Ice Baby” and believe that Vanilla Ice serendipitously created an opening lick nearly identical to Queen’s “Under Pressure.” But scores of other musicians—from George Harrison and The Beach Boys to Coldplay and The Strokes—have all faced charges that call into question the originality of their work.

The late Richard L. Marsh, who taught cognitive psychology at the University of Georgia, became a leading voice in cryptomnesia research over the course of his career. “When people engage in creative activity,” he told Newsweek in 2009, “they are so involved in generating or coming up with something new or novel that they fail to protect against what they previously experienced.”

Throughout the 1990s, Marsh and his colleagues conducted a number of studies on this issue, the most notable of which used the game Boggle to gauge how well people remembered whether they or their partner (in this case a computer) had thought of a specific word. The results of that particular experiment led Marsh and his colleague, Dr. Gordon H. Bower of Stanford University, to recognize an “unambiguous existence of substantial unconscious plagiarism.”

Bower, for his part, gives musicians the benefit of the doubt. “I think most of the cases are inadvertent,” he says over the phone. “Musicians are unaware because they have composed hundreds of songs in the life and heard thousands of songs. The material that they’re now trying to create has to somehow avoid duplication. It’s a herculean task of memory.”

In the wake of their research, Marsh and Bower concluded that cryptomnesia is actually a good deal more common than anyone would realize. Yes, Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” might sound like “I Won’t Back Down,” but cut the guy some slack; it could just be his memory playing tricks on him.