Cryptomnesia, or inadvertent plagiarism, is a memory bias whereby a person falsely recalls generating a thought, an idea, a song, or a joke, when the thought was actually generated by someone else. In these cases, the person is not deliberately engaging in plagiarism, but is rather experiencing a memory as if it were a new inspiration.

Self-plagiarism is not as costly as plagiarizing the work of others. In a famous case, George Harrison was sued over royalties for his first solo song “My Sweet Lord”, a song that sounded too similar to the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”. Harrison lost the case when a judge said he “subconsciously plagiarized”, and was ordered to pay $587,000 to Bright Tunes Music, who owned the copyright. Plagiarism of this sort is a kind of sleeper effect whereby old ideas come to feel new.

As explained by Carl Jung in Man and His Symbols, “An author may be writing steadily to a preconceived plan, working out an argument or developing the line of a story, when he suddenly runs off at a tangent. Perhaps a fresh idea has occurred to him, or a different image, or a whole new sub-plot. If you ask him what prompted the digression, he will not be able to tell you. He may not even have noticed the change, though he has now produced material that is entirely fresh and apparently unknown to him before. Yet it can sometimes be shown convincingly that what he has written bears a striking similarity to the work of another author, a work that he believes he has never seen.”

Helen Keller seriously compromised her and her teacher’s credibility with an incident of cryptomnesia which was misapprehended as plagiarism. The Frost King, which Keller wrote out of buried memories of a fairytale read to her four years previously, left Keller a nervous wreck, and unable to write fiction for the rest of her life.

Cryptomnesia may be the result of some memories becoming forcibly unconscious, due to lack of reinforcement through use. There may be enough of the memory left to recall it but not its origin. Therefore it does not always take the shape of plagiarism, as it would in writing, as well as musical compositions, but can also be the basis of philosophy.


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