Q. Was Ellen White Guilty of Plagiarism?
A. Ellen White often made use of literary sources in communicating her messages. In the Introduction to one of her most popular books, she wrote:
“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 in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given 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 been made of their published works” (The Great Controversy, p. xii).
Ellen White’s use of other authors was not limited to historical or geographical material, but included other subject areas as well. Research has found that she enriched her writings with choice expressions from her reading more extensively than had been known, although the amount that has been documented thus far is a small percentage (less than 2 percent) when measured against her total literary output.
In 1980 Dr. Fred Veltman, at that time the chairman of the Religion Department of Pacific Union College, undertook a detailed analysis of Ellen White’s use of literary sources in her book The Desire of Ages, a study which took eight years to complete. Copies of the full 2,561-page report were distributed to Seventh-day Adventist college and university libraries throughout the world. The complete report, including its 100-page summary, is also available online at the General Conference Archives web site. Look for “Life of Christ Research Project” under “Categories” at http://archives.gc.adventist.org/ast/archives/.
Because she included such selections from other authors in her writings, critics have charged Ellen White with plagiarism. But the mere use of another’s language does not constitute literary theft, as noted by Attorney Vincent L. Ramik, a specialist in patent, trademark, and copyright cases. After researching about 1,000 copyright cases in American legal history, Ramik issued a 27-page legal opinion in which he concluded “Ellen White was not a plagiarist, and her works did not constitute copyright infringement/piracy.” Ramik points out several factors that critics of Ellen White’s writings have failed to take into account when accusing her of literary theft or deceit. 1) Her selections “stayed well within the legal boundaries of ‘fair use.'” 2) “Ellen White used the writings of others; but in the way she used them, she made them uniquely her own”–adapting the selections into her own literary framework. 3) Ellen White urged her readers to get copies of some of the very books she made use of–demonstrating that she did not attempt to conceal the fact of her use of literary sources, and that she had no intention to defraud or supersede the works of any other author.
Ellen White “did not copy wholesale or without discrimination. What she selected or did not select, and how she altered what she selected” reveals that she used literary sources “to amplify or to state more forcefully her own transcending themes; she was the master, not the slave, of her sources” (Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord, p. 461). See also The Truth about the White Lie.