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Cryptomnesia- A Potentially Serious Issue for All Online Writers

Updated on August 10, 2014
The issue of cryptomnesia once cost this man a great deal of anxiety. Read on to know why.
The issue of cryptomnesia once cost this man a great deal of anxiety. Read on to know why.

Be Careful

While the news talks of stirring drama in politics, the liberals and conservatives battle it out over political position over mundane matters, and the Obama Administration forges ahead into a political arena of near depression-status economical woes and job loss, there have been other significant changes moving along, but moving slower and sneaking in under the radar of those unaware. No, this isn’t about some conspiracy, but the fact that things go on around us that we may not be aware of, yet potentially affect us and, we may be doing things we truly don’t realize. For example, the world of online freelance article writing attracts new writers continually, and many of those writers honestly didn’t know the forum was there (as it is the way it is) until the moment when they did. Your humble author of this article is among them; I truly didn’t know of this opportunity until I stumbled upon it. If I did, I would have jumped on it sooner, since I jumped on it as soon as I knew what was there. There are, of course, other examples of how things we know little or nothing about affect us, such as how do young men find it acceptable to walk around with their underpants hanging out the back of their baggy pants? Further, would they do it if they knew the origin of it was prison-related, and the guys who did this in prison were advertizing for sexual encounters (with other inmates) by doing it?

There is a point to that. The younger generation of today does this because the fashion sense of today calls for a rebellious, devil-may-care appearance. That is nothing new. Just look back to the days of the neon Mohawks of a generation ago, or the ultra-short miniskirts before that, and the paper bikinis, and the James Dean/Fonzie leather jackets from another era. But the point isn’t fashion; it is how dynamics in the world around us that we may not be aware of could affect us seriously.

This is addressed to those of you writing on these sites, such as Hubpages, Helium, and the myriad of other similar sites where writing is openly accepted. Most of us who do this know quite well that much of what we publish on these sites would be difficult at best to get on paper. By that, I mean it would be a greater challenge to see many of our Op-Ed pieces into the newspaper or news magazines. We know the short stories would be up against much severer odds with the litmag market. In fact, every story I have in my repertoire online was repeatedly rejected everywhere else. Now, I am not dragging down the internet opportunities as something watered down or open to mere trash. Quite the contrary. The capabilities of these various sites opens writers to the world, and the world to work that is so voluminous that no other medium has the capability to cope. It is really the best of both worlds for both writers and readers! Read whatever you want without feeling pressured by cost of the medium within the work exists. It doesn’t cost the reader anything! If you’re paying for internet availability, you’re paying for the writing contained within it! It is just too awesome! Also, the writer writes for the sake of it, because little else is at stake.

But all of this brought up a severe concern in my mind, and I think it should be considered by anyone who submits large volumes of writing on the internet. Please read on and give this some attention!

We all know about the Cardinal Sin of Plagiarism. We get it. Any writer worth his salt not only finds the act of plagiarism morally equivalent to stealing social security checks from old ladies, but also knows the crime is probably likely to be less than common just due to the fact that it’s so dirty. But, this article isn’t about Plagiarism. This article is about Subconscious Plagiarism. A secondary subject within this article is this: does this form of widespread publishing quash the validity of the subject because there is such a glut of information on a narrow range of subjects, or is the problem an Anaconda in the reeds; could someone see another writer wrote something quite similar to their work and have a case? How difficult would that be?

After all, the quantity of writers who are regularly submitting written material at a rate of at least several articles a week must number into the hundreds of thousands, but the categories (and subcategories) they have to choose from number well less than one hundred. How many people have written an article about why a golf ball has those dimples on it? There is no doubt that many writers have come up with an interesting topic to write about, but then felt compelled to drop it because once they searched for similar articles on whatever site they subscribe to and found a countless amount of articles on the same thing, with many of them saying the same thing, they quickly lost interest or any value in continuing forward.

But, there are surely enormous amounts of writers who stumbled onto a subject of interest (yeah, why does this golf ball have all these dimples, anyway?) and then just jumped into it with both feet. Then, they pursued the information, took notes, and spent a great deal of time writing their piece to be interesting, educational, and entertaining. They spent a nice bit of time on it, submitted, and then…voila! They knew their work was stunning, and the fact that the big shots at the site published it only confirms that. So, they wait for a couple weeks to pass, and search up the idea on their favorite search engine.

Umm…oh, boy….

Yeah, there are likely thousands of other articles out there on that very subject. Thousands and thousands. Many of which could be considered so alike to the article our hero submitted, that suddenly he might feel a bit nervous.

“Wow, this guy’s article is almost just like mine. In fact, if I compared these two articles…hell, these fifty-seven articles, I would say someone is a plagiarist. Not only that, but I might point fingers at the article I wrote! But I didn’t copy their work; I never even saw their work.”

Most people are aware of the most famous case of Subconscious Plagiarism (and one of the most morally bankrupt), which is that regarding George Harrison and his song, “My Sweet Lord”. If you are not aware of it, George Harrison was sued for this song, plaintiffs saying the song was an act of plagiarism against the song, “He’s So Fine”, by the Chiffons. For those of you who know little or nothing about the case, that may appear pathetic, but the more you learn about it, the more you have to wonder about the realm of law surrounding plagiarism. In fact, it would be a good idea to do some homework if you’re one who likes to write. This is why:

The case regarding Harrison and Bright Tunes (who owned the copyright to ‘He’s So Fine’) wasn’t about the lyrics or even the subject matter. Bright Tunes actually found something worth a case within the very DNA of the musical structure. He’s So Fine and My Sweet Lord are both 1, 2, 3. Further, the notes for both are G, E, and D. If you are familiar with both songs, hum them to yourself. Do you see a potential relation? Then, there is the secondary part to this chorus (sung by background vocalists on both songs) that has eerie similarities.

When Harrison was first working with this (with 5th Beatle, Billy Preston) they started out with a musical sound for ‘Hare Krishna’ and ‘Hallelujah’. ‘My Sweet Lord’ came later. But when sang, the notes flow as such: G, A, C, A, and then C. This was the case for ‘Do Lang Do Lang’ in HSF, and for the various repetitions of Hallelujah and Hare Krishna in MSL. Therefore, from the most basic musical structure of the two songs, the DNA is similar enough to claim both songs have the same parents (so to speak). There is indeed a case.

From there, the problem went from proving that Harrison intentionally copied the song as his own, to the notion that the plagiarism was unintentional. Harrison did indeed state he was familiar with the song by The Chiffons. To make this simple, George Harrison was found guilty of Subconscious Plagiarism, since he subconsciously knew the combination of notes would make a quality song and therefore did so for himself. The case went from a case of who was right or wrong to what the damages would be. Because Harrison’s legally required settlement to Bright Tunes almost amounted to close to 2 million dollars, the case went into the appeals category for literally decades. This part of the story goes on and on.

The point here and how it applies to the writing done is: could the basic DNA of one article in comparison to another be enough to make a case of plagiarism, or potentially unintentional or Subconscious Plagiarism? Make no mistake that the precedents have been set, which is a significant percentage of any case when precedence is applicable.

Does the first one to explain why a golf ball has dimples have a case against the plethora of other writers who also felt compelled to write about the subject, or would the vast amount of writers who pursued it be too big to make a case worthwhile? This is a worthwhile question, since virtually everyone who submits regularly within this forum is bound to be stepping on some toes somewhere; there are just so many people who can occupy the same subject space and not bump into one another. How many people wrote about Joe the Plumber? That might be open to public forum because of the subject matter, but there are so many things that won’t be so conveniently protected.

Going back to music, we can see many examples where artists are creatively stifled and would rather submit to the problem by openly borrowing from other music. A recent song by Rihanna intentionally borrows from ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell, and they’re version was a cover. Janet Jackson did this with a guitar riff from a tune by America. Look back at what made Vanilla Ice famous, with his almost complete use of the instrumental sound from ‘Under Pressure’ by David Bowie and Freddy Mercury. While there is no doubt that Vanilla Ice ensured permission and healthy monetary compensation, it shows that since there are so many popular songs out there and you could never know them all, it would be prohibitive to be original. Try to be creative and original in modern music and you could lose big time.

So, how does this translate into the writing arena of today? George Harrison made good money from his ill-fated song, but most online writers are compensated mainly through Pay-Per-Click. Is there anything to chase? But, what if a writer builds a career with a base being from online writing? Numerous content producers have achieved millions of page-views on their writing. What if any of them go on to pursue something even bigger, using their success online as part of their platform? What if one of these top online writers writes a novel and uses their success online to gain an agent? What if the writer attributes early success to their writing on the internet? Then, what if some Schmoe claims that successful writer never would have made it if it wasn’t for the plagiarism of their work? Judging by what’s there, this would be an easy claim. Further, as is the case proven by George Harrison, you don’t have to know your work was plagiarism for it to be plagiarism. They call this Subconscious Plagiarism, and someone came up with the fancy term, Cryptomnesia, or Inadvertent Plagiarism.

There is also Soft Plagiarism, which is the use of someone else’s ideas, not merely words. So, combine Soft Plagiarism with Cryptomnesia…My God, I am almost afraid to submit this or any other article ever again. How is anyone beyond the first joker who wrote about the dimples on a golf ball NOT guilty of plagiarism in some form?

Now this goes from an issue of guilt to an issue of damages, just like it did in Harrison’s case. But come on, the vast, vast majority of writers on forums like Associated Content, Helium, or any other others are not making big money at it. Not enough to justify the legal expenses, anyway. Sure, they might be making nice extra money, but Harrison’s income stepped into the millions on that one song. Millions are worth pursuing, not a buck per thousand clicks.

So, no matter how one looks at this, there is little doubt there is a paradigm shift because of this relatively new forum for the public to utilize. Legal issues are bound to change, or merely disregarded because of the monetary value, or lack of it. But doesn’t that establish precedence? You bet it would if someone attempted to sue me, there buddy. Why didn’t you attempt to sue all these other Schmoes before you zeroed in on me? Is this about the principle of the matter, or the potential monetary value, and remember that you’re under oath. The best case scenario would surely be messy.

To keep with relevance on the matter, when George Harrison was whacked with that ridiculous suit, the issue wasn’t just what was made by the song in question, but a combination of all the other songs on the album, their percentage of airplay when averaged against one another and the song in question, and a series of other factors. To be honest, Harrison and his legal team were wise to keep the thing in Limbo over the years because Bright Tunes wanted to clean Harrison out on a quirky technicality they broke down to the cellular structure. Rather than just let them maul him over what was an obvious scam, he kept the thing in stasis until it was barely worth pursuing. This, class, is why so many just settle out of court. He could have lost millions but the thing ended with but a mere percentage of that.

So, what if a writer succeeds with something unexceptionally original, but had a forming career based on some work that could fall under Cryptomnesia or Soft Plagiarism? Then things needs to be averaged, extrapolated, discombobulated, masturbated and who knows what else would be done to jack up the legal costs.

Let’s face it. One has to be courageous to pursue a career, or even a hobby, in the creative arts of today. It has been said that there are no more original ideas anymore. It would be difficult to determine the verity of that statement, but with there being an element of truth there, and the existence of Cryptomnesia, how does one NOT drive themselves into a legal quagmire after the first hint of success? Or, would the potential of committing an act of Cryptomnesia be so unavoidable that it no longer could be considered a viable legal pursuit? For the first person to write about golf ball dimples, who would he pursue, and what could he expect to accomplish?

Someone is bound to make it big after building a resume’ with online article writing, if it hasn’t happened already. It would be interesting to see who might look at someone’s success with lust in their eyes and blood on their breath. It would be interesting to see who might use the pathetic case against George Harrison and others like it as precedence, pulling all manner of online articles (just like this one and, chances are, yours) into evidence.

Subconscious Plagiarism

While the word itself, Cryptomnesia, isn’t one to come up in daily language (unless you’re a big fan of the alternative band of the same name), the issues presented by the condition are part of our daily lives. While the definition is often associated with (or claimed as the accurate and proper definition) as Subconscious Plagiarism, this is not accurate at all. Cryptomnesia is this sort of plagiarism in the same way intercourse means sex; this phrase is among the most commonly accepted ways of expressing this point in polite company. But, like intercourse (meaning interaction), Cryptomnesia truly means hidden memory. A basic definition is: The appearance in consciousness of memories that are not seen as memories but original thoughts or ideas.

How often have many of us discussed something with an individual we’ve often carried on a conversation with, to end up with a moment of embarrassment after telling them something as if they have never heard it before, just so they can say, “Uh, hey. I’m the one who told you that.”

Then it comes right back. That’s right, he did tell me that, and now I can remember when that was and why. But, this is a nice and easy example. However, one of the most widely known cases of Cryptomnesia and the legal fallout thereof is not so clear, as is the case with George Harrison and his song ‘My Sweet Lord’. If you don’t know, Harrison’s song was claimed to be plagiarized from a song by The Chiffons, called ‘He’s So Fine.’ This is brought up only because it is such a touchy example. Many claim the case against Harrison is obvious; others claim the plaintiffs latched onto an easy buck and ran like the wind. When broken down into legal mumbo jumbo, anyone can make it sound like anyone did anything, and this legalese makes Harrison look like a crook. But when one sits down, exercises their own judgment and just listens to the two songs, it doesn’t seem so easy. Sure, the similarities are there, but in the confining space of the radio-friendly pop song format, how easy would it be to say this sounds like that, so I’ll see you in court.

There is a problem here, because the issue of Cryptomnesia could simply be a matter of basics within the human condition. According to psychiatrist Carl Jung, the process of Cryptomnesia may be a symptom of a necessary condition of the mind. The theory is that the conscious mind can only accommodate so many memories, so old and outdated ones must be discarded. If nobody ever forgot anything, the mind would soon reach maximum capacity and then, kapow, everything would be nothing but chaos. So, we forget what doesn’t need to be recalled, but those old memories could float around in the subconscious mind. Then, should they compare with something new, they might reappear as new and original. In fact, many psychiatrists and other claim this condition could explain many incidences of past-life memories or experiences. It seems logical enough. If one experiences memories they cannot explain, it would seem possible the memories are from a past life, particularly since such romantic notions seem like such fun.

From the perspective of Cryptomnesia being Subconscious Plagiarism, there are numerous cases on the books and in lore. As mentioned above, a particularly famous (and expensive) case revolved around George Harrison, but there have been many others. The band, Coldplay, is now facing the issue with Joe Satriani, with Joe claiming their popular hit, ‘Viva La Vida’, contains riffs from one of his songs. But an awesome example revolves around a very famous poem.

It’s likely most who read this are familiar with the poem, ‘Footprints’, which is a very famous poem reflecting how, when one experiences life’s turmoils, there are only one set of footprints in the sand, as opposed to when things are good, the footprints of both the individual and God are there. The poem states that when there are only one set of footprints, that is when God carried said person. It is a lovely piece of poetry, to be sure. Far lesser known to many is how many people claim to be the author.

For those of you familiar with the poem, be it on a plaque in your kitchen, or printed on a paper napkin you used at an Ice Cream Social, try to look back and recall the name given as credit. You might likely remember (or easily find in the house somewhere) that credit is given to: Anonymous.

Yet many, many people claim they’re the one who wrote the poem and often will give detailed stories with their explanation as to how they came up with it.

One of the most convincing stories is one by Burrell Webb, who says he wrote the poem during a time when he was rather down and stressed, and claimed it was the Will of God that it came to him. He claims he credited God for the poem, given to him through a form of automatic writing, so he published it in a local newspaper, but did so anonymously. A few decades later, Webb discovers the poem is all over the place, but now with many other people claiming they’re the authors of the work. He came forward after all these other people had claimed they were the original authors, and even had a polygraph test done as an act to show he meant no delusion. He does seem convincing, and claims he wrote the poem in 1958.

But many others also sound convincing, like Mary Stevenson, who claims she wrote the poem in 1936. She claims she was motivated by seeing a cat’s footprints in the snow and then jotted down the poem, which she freely dispensed to anyone who liked it.

Someone bringing the poem into the modern day is Margaret Powers, who claims to be the poem’s author. She states it is something that came to her after suffering many hardships but never losing faith in God. She registered it, sold the rights to it, and then even published a memoir entitled, ‘Footprints: The True Story Behind the Poem that Inspired Millions’. She’s also licensed the poem to many companies like Hallmark and others, and has a lawyer defending her. This lawyer writes to companies that reprint the poem but claim ‘Anonymous’, stating they must give credit to Powers.

Then, there is Carolyn Carty, who allegedly wrote the poem at the tender age of six, in the year 1963. She copyrighted the poem, too. But the story doesn’t end there. According to history, a preacher named Charles Spurgeon gave a sermon back in 1880, illustrating how God and Jesus are always there through a story about someone shipwrecked on a desert island who, when he looked closely at the footprints in the sand he thought were his, he saw the places in the footprints where the nail marks were. This illustrates that Jesus was there with him all along, and he was not alone.

Not surprisingly, everyone who claims they might have been inspired by something they read dismisses the notion they might have read something about Spurgeon’s moving sermon and state they are the original authors. They claim they’re the poet, and have been willing enough to come into the public spotlight from humble, private lives to make it known. It appears each of these claimants are so convincing because they have themselves so convinced, which is the most fascinating aspect of the story.

This story falls well under the subject of Cryptomnesia, not that it would matter much as a whole. There are many critics of the validity of Cryptomnesia, claiming it as a ruse to hide deliberate plagiarism. That would hold water regardless of its verity, since copyright laws as of 2006 will treat issues appearing to be subconscious plagiarism as deliberate plagiarism, all thanks so much to the precedent set in the case with George Harrison and the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had to pay out as a result.

In an article prior to this one, I wrote about this very subject and how it could potentially affect just about anyone today, particularly those who write prolifically and publish online. I continued forward on the subject with this article because I felt there was sufficient evidence that many writers could be in legal jeopardy with their consistent flow of work appearing online, so I wanted to provide more information missing from the previous article. This was motivated after a little more digging on the subject after having already submitted the previous article. Upon discovery of the ‘Footprints’ saga, it seemed obvious there was more to be said. In fact, there are more examples. A lot more, and with well-known names attached. It’s recommended that anyone who creates anything should find it worthwhile to do a little homework on this subject, and there is a reason for that.

According to many, when there is such a glut of information and creativity, it is hard to be completely original. The radio-friendly format all songs must adhere to if they’re to be heard on the radio are all potentially guilty of the issue. They all have a chorus, a repeating riff, a bridge, a solo of some sort, and an ending chorus. How many trail off, ending with a fading volume? The format is so rigid that virtually every song we’ve heard for decades sticks to it. Then, the timeframe is down to about three minutes. What are the chances that somebody has created something that might sound like something done by someone else? Rather likely is a fair assessment, particularly since all artists point out someone who inspired them, often as a matter of homage. George Harrison was legally whacked for something so dramatic, yet how many famous artists claim they were inspired by The Beatles?

So, if we translate this issue into the realm of writing, couldn’t the appearance of just about anything be under this plagiaristic scrutiny? How many horror novels have been written, and how many have similar plots? The same goes for mystery novels. And crime fiction, and humor, and romance, and on and on. Then, there is the common criticism spread over so much of the writing done online, which is that, “On the internet there is a flurry of amateur writers, all of which say the exact same thing.”

While that isn’t fair at all, there is an issue that needs attention. For one thing, anyone who writes a heavy amount of work is bound to be touching on something they read elsewhere. Look, you can only plow through the same soil but so much before seeds planted by someone else try to sprout, particularly when the subject’s been plowed a thousand times before. Further, these litigants are pursuing the nuts and bolts of creativity, particularly when obvious words, rhythms, and lyrics being plagiarized are almost unheard of except in rare cases. The Harrison case was based on the very structure of the song, and it had to be, since the two songs are completely different in sound, context, and lyrics, with similarities in only, only the basic note framework. With the format of pop music deliberately stifling creativity and originality for the sake of business and convenience, how dare they get so creative in their legal pursuits?

With online writing being very much about the ease of gain of information on virtually any subject as well as an open forum for the people to approach, would it be fair that anyone approach a case of plagiarism without obvious word-for-word plagiarism? Then, that must be open to interpretation. An example is this: How many times have you read anything about the original Batman series, with Adam West, and NOT see it described as ‘Campy’? The words campy and Adam West go together like intercourse and sex. So, anyone who describes the original Batman as campy just has to be plagiarizing the label. How many people have described the show as campy without knowing what campy really means?

What does campy really mean? I just hit Shift F7 and got nothing. Looking deeper, it means, basically, something campy is something so over-the-top exaggerated that it is amusing. Doesn’t that mean that most political discourse and agenda is campy? Anyhoo…

Part of the point is creativity could be legally dismantled with all this legal absurdity. My testimony is that in the Harrison case, there was no case. Or, if there was, anyone who put out a song since the mid-sixties is guilty of plagiarism simply by being formatted to accommodate the radio. With the free flow of online writing, everyone should intentionally avoid blatant plagiarism, because plagiarism is wrong and cheesy, but no one should fear they’re writing about something others may have approached, or else the flow will virtually stop.

That would suck for me. I sort of like the gas money.


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