Crucial Question 5: Was plagiarism, or "literary borrowing," considered legal and ethical during Ellen White's lifetime?
Three decades ago, the SDA Church hired a copyright attorney named Vincent Ramik to study Ellen White’s borrowing of material from various sources, and Ramik concluded that Ellen White’s behavior was legal and ethical in her day. Is Ramik correct, or is he merely an attorney willing to argue a point? (see “There Is Simply No Case,” Adventist Review, September 17, 1981, pp. 4-6).
From the Pen of Ellen White:
“In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but except in a few instances no specific credit has been given, since they are not quoted for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject. In narrating the experience and views of those carrying forward the work of reform in our own time, similar use has occasionally been made of their published works” (1888 Great Controversy, p. h).
“In the World’s Crisis of Aug. 23, 1864, we find a piece of poetry duly headed, “For the World’s Crisis,” and signed “Luthera B. Weaver.” What was our surprise, therefore, to find this piece our familiar hymn, ‘Long upon the mountains weary / Have the scattered flock been torn.’ This piece was written by Annie R. Smith and was first published in the Review . . . . We are perfectly willing that pieces from the Review, or any of our books should be published to any extent, and all we ask is, that simple justice be done us, by due credit being given” (Review and Herald, September 6, 1864, p. 120; http://www.adventistarchives.org/docs/RH/RH18640308-V24-15__B/index.djvu).
Quote from A.G. Daniells, General Conference president, at the 1919 Bible Conference: “Yes; and now take that ‘Life of Paul,’ – I suppose you all know about it and knew what claims were put up against her, charges made of plagiarism, even by the authors of the book, Conybeare and Howson, and were liable to make the denomination trouble because there was so much of their book put into ‘The Life of Paul’ without any credit or quotation marks. Some people of strict logic might fly the track on that ground, but I am not built that way. I found it out, and I read it with Brother Palmer when he found it, and we got Conybeare and Howson, and we got Wylie’s ‘History of the Reformation,’ and we read word for word, page after page, and no quotations, no credit, and really I did not know the difference until I began to compare them. I supposed it was Sister White’s own work. The poor sister said, ‘Why, I didn’t know about quotations and credits. My secretary should have looked after that, and the publishing house should have looked after it’” (“Inspiration of the Spirit of Prophecy as Related to the Inspiration of the Bible,” Spectrum, May 1979, pp. 51-52; for online access, see http://spectrummagazine.org/files/archive/archive06-10/10-1prophecy2.pdf).
“It is just as wrong to appropriate to oneself credit for productions written by another as to steal a horse. One who boldly signs his name to another's article, and allows it to appear in print as his own, is a thief of the darkest hue.
“Taking another's knowledge and parading it as one's own, is a despicable thing to do. The student who copies at examination time is dishonest; but plagiarism is a meaner kind of thievery, if there are degrees of dishonesty.
“Why do people do it? It is a crime punishable by law. It is as much of a disgrace, to say nothing of the sin, as to break into a neighbor's house and steal his goods.
“All who profess common decency, much less Christianity, should eschew all forms of dishonesty. Let us be true and pure in all we do, that the Lord may claim us as his own, and that we may not grieve him again by playing a Judas part in life” (Youths' Instructor, December 25, 1917, p. 16; available at http://www.adventistarchives.org/DocArchives.asp).
“Plagiarism is the act by one author or writer of using the productions of another without giving him credit. For example, if you were to write an article in which you inserted “The Psalm of Life” or any part of it, and permit it to pass under your name, as your own production, not giving credit to the poet Longfellow, you would be guilty of the crime of plagiarism” (J.B. Gallion, “Spiritual Plagiarism,” Review and Herald, Mar. 23, 1922, p. 21; available online at http://www.adventistarchives.org/DocArchives.asp).
Ellen White died in 1915, and here we see her SDA contemporaries strongly denouncing plagiarism, recognizing it as unethical as early as 1864. The statements from 1917 and 1922 both move beyond ethics and declare plagiarism illegal. Interestingly, Ellen White’s last book that is not (officially) a compilation is Prophets and Kings. It contains a vast amount of plagiarism (see Rea 176-185), and it was published in 1917, the very year that The Youth’s Instructor informed SDA young people of the “crime” of plagiarism.
According to A.G. Daniells, General Conference president at the time of his statement at the 1919 Bible Conference, Ellen White was almost sued for plagiarizing Sketches from the Life of Paul from the book by Conybeare and Howson. After being contacted by the aggrieved publishing company, White withdrew Sketches from publication, indicating that the original authors had a strong case, and this undercuts Ramik’s argument that Ellen White violated no laws existing in her day.
- Why did Ellen White violate the common standards of her day with respect to literary borrowing?
- How can the SDA Church continue arguing that EGW did nothing legally wrong when their own publications state that plagiarism was illegal at least as early as 1917, the year Prophets and Kings was published?
- Does Ellen White’s admission of using sources for The Great Controversy discharge her from her duty to identify them and use quotation marks?
“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” (Matt. 7:22).
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).
“And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel that prophesy, and say thou unto them that prophesy out of their own hearts, Hear ye the word of the LORD; Thus saith the Lord GOD; Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! O Israel, thy prophets are like the foxes in the deserts. Ye have not gone up into the gaps, neither made up the hedge for the house of Israel to stand in the battle in the day of the LORD. They have seen vanity and lying divination, saying, The LORD saith: and the LORD hath not sent them: and they have made others to hope that they would confirm the word. Have ye not seen a vain vision, and have ye not spoken a lying divination, whereas ye say, The LORD saith it; albeit I have not spoken? Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Because ye have spoken vanity, and seen lies, therefore, behold, I am against you, saith the Lord GOD. And mine hand shall be upon the prophets that see vanity, and that divine lies . . . .” (Ezekiel 13:1-9).
"Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, are these. For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit" (Jer. 7:4-8).
“The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment” (Prov. 12:19).
“Let the lying lips be put to silence; which speak grievous things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous” (Ps. 31:18).
“Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue” (Ps. 120:2).
“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).
For Further Study:
- “There Is Simply No Case,” Adventist Review, September 17, 1981, pp. 4-6
- Walter Rea, The White Lie
- “Plagiarism,” Review and Herald, September 6, 1864, p. 120; http://www.adventistarchives.org/DocArchives.asp
- J.B. Gallion, “Spiritual Plagiarism,” Review and Herald, Mar. 23, 1922, p. 21; available online at http://www.adventistarchives.org/DocArchives.asp
- “Plagiarism,” Youths' Instructor, December 25, 1917, p. 16; available at http://www.adventistarchives.org/DocArchives.asp).
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