Sam Smith and the Science of ‘Accidental Plagiarism’

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Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Yesterday, Vulture posted about Sam Smith’s legal troubles over his hit “Stay With Me,” a song with a melody that sounds pretty darn close to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” (You can compare the two songs for yourself here, if you like.) Reports indicate that Smith and his team were very willing to work with Petty & Co. to reach a settlement out of court; as one source said to NME about the situation, “It wasn’t a deliberate thing, musicians are just inspired by other artists.”

Obviously, we don’t know how these two songs came to sound so much alike. But you could call this kind of thing “accidental plagiarism,” something Adam Grant, the professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about on several occasions. “I’m interested in why people don’t always give credit where it’s due,” Grant said in an email. (He wrote a whole book on that subject, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.)  

Grant’s preferred term for this behavior is “kleptomnesia,” which — in the spirit of giving proper credit — he says was coined by the Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert to mean “borrowing someone else’s idea without realizing you’ve done so.” And while it’s easy to assume that “idea theft is malicious or driven by self-serving intentions … kleptomnesia happens even when we have the best of intentions,” Grant said. 

In a recent blog post, Grant breaks down a study suggesting how common it is to plagiarize accidentally: 

In a classic demonstration, psychologists Alan Brown and Dana Murphy invited people to brainstorm in groups of four. They took turns generating lists of sports, musical instruments, clothes, or four-legged animals. Each participant generated four ideas from each category. Next, the participants were asked to write down the four ideas that they personally generated for each category. 

Alarmingly, a full 75 percent of participants unintentionally plagiarized, claiming they generated an idea that was in fact offered by another member of their group. And later, the participants wrote down four new ideas for each category. The majority wrote down at least one idea tht had already been generated by another group member – usually the group member who’d generated ideas immediately before them. 

Perhaps not surprising, Grant says, we’re most likely to unintentionally plagiarize when we’re trying to multitask; doing one thing at a time might help keep us from stealing without realizing. And there are other ways to avoid kleptomnesia, too. “Some creators have gone so far as avoiding work that they might accidentally steal — Simpsons writer George Meyer refused to watch Seinfeld to make sure that a joke didn’t slip into his work,” Grant said. “The most important step, though, is to do a better job keeping track of the sources of the ideas that we hear.”