Did Ellen G. White Violate the
Copyright Laws of Her Day?
by Wayne Willey
Edited by Rolaant L. McKenzie
Many Seventh-day Adventists have responded to EGW's "borrowing" or copying material from other authors by stating, "What has not been established, however, is that her practice was unusual in the context of her time, especially among religious writers".
It was a common practice in the sub-culture of Adventism for Adventist writers to copy material from other writers without giving credit to the original writer.
Ellen White copied much of the material on the sanctuary in the 1884/1888 GREAT CONTROVERSY from Uriah Smith's 1877 book on THE SANCTUARY & ITS CLEANSING. Smith copied much of his material from J.N. Andrews 1853/1872 book THE SANCTUARY AND THE 2300 DAYS. Andrews had copied much of his material from Crosier's 1846 *Day Dawn* article which had been published in the *Review & Herald* in 1850. (I have photocopies of all these earlier works which were published by Leaves of Autumn Books, P.O. Box 440, Payson, AZ 85547.)
D.M. Canright copied large amounts of material from an 1863 book by Moses Hull and printed a book under the same title under his own name in 1877.
The fact that widespread copying of the works of other authors may have been common practice among Adventist writers during the 19th century does not change the fact that such a practice was a violation of the copyright laws of that time as well as being unethical and immoral. Why should religious writers be exempt from following the law, including copyright law?
Many Adventists have also stated that before the copyright laws of 1909, any published material was automatically in the public domain.
American copyright law can be traced back to English common law and to the British copyright laws that were in place during colonial times. In 1710, Parliament passed the first copyright act in Britain. In 1787, James Madison used the need for a national copyright system as one of the reasons for the adoption of the proposed federal constitution in the Federalist Papers, saying "the copyright of authors has been solemnly adjudged, in Great Britain, to be a right of common law".
One of the first acts of Congress under the new constitution of the United States of America was the passage of a copyright act in 1790. Congress amended that copyright law in 1831, extending the term of the writer's copy rights to 28 years, renewable for another 14 years. Congress amended the copyright law again in 1870 and 1909, increasing the renewal term to 28 years. There were three international copyright conventions: the Berne Convention of 1886 (the same year that Ellen White was in Switzerland), the Buenos Aires or Pan American Convention in 1909 and the Geneva Convention of 1952.
Ellen White was aware of the benefits of copyrights to protect an author's work. She copyrighted her books, even books in which she copied large amounts of material from other writers. For example, Ellen White copyrighted SKETCHES FROM THE LIFE OF PAUL in 1883, even though she had copied large amounts of the material which was published in her book from LIFE & EPISTLES OF THE APOSTLE PAUL by two British authors named Conybeare and Howson.
Ellen White insisted that those who re-published material she had written should give her credit. It would have required very little effort for Ellen White to acknowledge the benefit she had received from the writings of other authors. Not only did she fail to acknowledge her use of material from other writers, she even denied doing so on numerous occasions.
Ellen White had the example of her husband to follow. In 1875, James White published a book entitled SKETCHES OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE AND PUBLIC LABORS OF WILLIAM MILLER. In the first paragraph of his introduction to this book, James White acknowledges, "Before us is a plain volume, the title page of which reads, 'Memoir of William Miller generally known as a Lecturer on the Prophecies and the Second Coming of Christ, by Sylvester Bliss, author of Analysis of Sacred Chronology, a brief Commentary on the Apocalypse', etc." In one of the closing paragraphs of the introduction White acknowledges, "In gathering material for this work, we have copied very largely from Mr. Bliss, especially from the correspondence and writings of Mr. Miller which are incorporated into his Memoir."
It may be no accident that all of Ellen White's obvious violations of copyright law took place after the death of her husband.
Adventists often raise the argument that in the judgment of modern copyright attorneys, her methods did not constitute plagiarism even by the more stringent standards of the 1980s. What they fail to mention is that this opinion (this was not a legal judgment; legal judgments can only be issued as a result of legal action before a judge in a court of law) came from an attorney who had been placed on retainer by the General Conference to answer Walter Rea's charges that Ellen White had violated the copy rights of other authors. A client pays an attorney to produce the best arguments which can be developed to defend that client from an accusation of wrong-doing. In many cases an attorney's defense of a client will be based upon technicalities.
On a strictly technical basis, Ellen White's SKETCHES FROM THE LIFE OF PAUL did not infringe on Conybeare and Howson's copyright for the material in the LIFE & EPISTLES OF THE APOSTLE PAUL because American copyright law did not extend copyright protection to the works of authors from other nations until a presidential proclamation in 1891 permitted British authors to secure American copyrights by following the same procedure by which American authors received copyrights. The proclamation did not grant copyright protection to any British work published prior to 1891 nor to any British work not submitted for copyright protection. Conybeare and Howson therefore had no copyright protection in the United States and numerous American publishers apparently treated their book as being in the public domain and printed that book without paying royalties to the authors. Ellen White's use of Conybeare and Howson's material would not have been illegal under American law in 1883. An action does not have to be illegal to be unethical or immoral.
F.D. Nichol's book ELLEN G. WHITE AND HER CRITICS which was "prepared under the direction and sponsorship of the Defense Literature Committee" and published in 1951 by the Review & Herald. This book was obviously prepared in response to D.M. Canright's 1919 book on the LIFE OF MRS. E.G. WHITE. Nichol wrote a very strong defense of Ellen White in this book. I doubt that any attorney could have prepared a stronger defense.
One can only wonder why this book was not written 30 years earlier when the Canright book was published. Yes, there had been some booklets which responded to Canright, but the first definitive response to Canright was W.H. Branson's book IN DEFENSE OF FAITH which was published by the Review & Herald in the 1930s -- but that book focused on responding to Canright's 1889 book SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISM RENOUNCED rather than Canright's 1919 book on the LIFE OF MRS. E.G. WHITE.
The most substantial recent defense against Canright was an offense -- the book I WAS CANRIGHT'S SECRETARY (Review & Herald, 1971) in which a woman who claims she worked as Canright's secretary for seven months in 1913 while she was a student at a business college in Battle Creek.
This woman came forward fifty years after Canright's death to describe Dudley Canright as a "Jeckyl and Hyde" personality who sometimes appeared to be "possessed by a power over which he had no control" -- a man who had "lost his power of personal choice or decision". This woman claims she kept this secret for more than fifty years because of a promise she had made to W.E. Cornell of the Cornell Business College and D.M. Canright. Yet on page 146 she tells how she had met two officers of the Battle Creek Church in the church office in 1913 and "Before I realized it, I had told them all I knew. The circumstances and the heavy burdens that rested on my youthful shoulders dispelled for the moment any thoughts of loyalty either to Mr. Canright or to Mr. Cornell."
One of the men to whom she told her secret was the treasurer of the church. The other man was George Israel, MV leader of the Battle Creek Church and manager of the Good Health Publishing Company. These men made arrangements for her to find employment at the Battle Creek Food Company. Less than six weeks later, this woman was invited to become secretary to the pastor of the Battle Creek Church in his new position as president of the Southern Illinois Conference. About a year later she married the conference treasurer.
Why are we still fighting these battles more than 100 years after Canright revealed in SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISM RENOUNCED that Ellen White had copied material from other writers?
Why is it that the White Estate has not identified the works from which Ellen White copied?
Why is it that the White Estate has not revised Ellen White's books by inserting quoted material in quotation marks or at the very least inserting a publishers preface acknowledging that Ellen White used material from the following authors (authors listed) in preparing this book.
Why? Because the majority of the administrators of the Adventist denomination apparently fear that the truth would so completely discredit Ellen White that no one would trust anything that she had written. So denominational administrators continue to issue their excuses and rationalizations for Ellen White's violations of copyright law.