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The act of unconscious plagiarism
1 review about Cryptomnesia

Trying Not to Be a Copy Cat: The Threat of "Cryptomnesia"

  • Sep 4, 2009
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I find myself at the moment barricaded behind walls of books, as I try to write myself down the West Coast of Africa, following the Portuguese for my book Making Waves: The Portuguese Adventure. During the last two years I’ve read many primary sources as well as more recent histories and studies of what this small nation has done over the past 700 years. Now it’s time to put the pieces together along with my observations during the trips I took to research my last three non-fiction books. The publication date for the new book will be fall 2010, and I've promised my publisher Véhicule Press that I'll have a completed manuscript by next March.

It’s a fascinating experience, but unfortunately sometimes the facts and other bits of knowledge I’ve come across (and noted carefully) begin to run together. I am trying very hard to document all my sources, even though the book be written as one to be read for pleasure by the general reader. What I don’t want to do is inadvertently lift an idea from somewhere else and present it as my own.

That’s why I found an article about “cryptomnesia” so interesting. The idea is that such a thing as unconscious plagiarism exists. The truth is that some big names have been caught doing it: the article mentions that “Nietzsche ripped off a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra from something he'd read as a child, and former Beatle George Harrison was found guilty, in court, of unconsciously copying the music for his hit song, "My Sweet Lord."

There are ways to avoid doing it, author Russ Juskalian writes. “Taking diligent notes, reminding oneself to remember not just a good idea, but also its source, or simply pondering whether the clever phrase that popped into one's head is original, helps fend off cryptomnesia.”

So I find myself thumbing through my notes and the books surrounding me frantically, trying to make sure I know just where things come from. The mistakes, as writers always say in the acknowledgements, will be, of course, all mine.

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September 06, 2009
People often pick up the ideas of others without even knowing it. They may read a script, throw it in a drawer for a couple of months, read another, then write one of thier own much like the two they've read, forgetting where the original idea came from. It happens all the time.....much more than the average person is aware of. Also, highly creative people sometimes have the same ideas. I used to write and pitch in Hollywood, so I certainly know about ideas being stolen. Where do you think some of the producers come up with their ideas??
September 06, 2009
Interesting. While I understand that it's hard to document every spark of inspiration, I think that a writer who fails consciously to question the sources of his/her ideas (in the way Mr. Juskalian suggests) or who does not adequately fact check prior to publication is not really doing his or her job. But when a "regular" person inadvertently repeats a friend's phrase or concept that eventually becomes a common expression or phenomenon, it is quite another. In fact, without this imitation and repetition, the friend's idea would not get the exposure needed for it to become a trend. And if it did not become a trend, then pop culture historians would not be able to trace its origins!!

All kidding aside, I would say that writing is particularly susceptible to a different kind of "idea stealing" than, say, invention, design, language or fashion. Also, jeez, we really do live in a litigious society.
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