Plagiarism: a historical and cultural survey

When does similarity not equal plagiary? The writer shares four reasons for consideration.

Kevin L. Morgan pastors the Warrensville and Wilkesboro Seventh-day Adventist Churches in North Carolina, United States.

In a court of law, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, a person accused of a crime is often presumed guilty without a careful review of the facts.

In 1980 Ellen White joined the “Who’s Who” of high-profile authors accused (but rarely convicted) of plagiarism.1 This list includes Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana,2 Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Russell Lowell, Jack London, Martin Luther King Jr., and even William Shakespeare.3Just because a writer includes similar words or even exact phrases from other writers in their composition does not mean that they are literary thieves. In this first of three articles, we will see how this can be.

Developing a sense of intellectual property rights

Concern about intellectual property rights is of fairly recent origin. During the Middle Ages, the use of the words of others was not only common, it was expected. George Kennedy, in Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times, writes, “Classical writing and oratory were . . . to a considerable extent a pastiche, or piecing together of commonplaces, long or short. . . . The student memorized passages as he would letters and made up a speech out of these elements as he would words out of letters.

. . . In the Middle Ages handbooks of letter-writing often contained formulae, such as openings and closes, that the student could insert into a letter, and a whole series of formulary rhetorics existed in the Renaissance.”4

By the 1700s, concern about plagiarism had changed little. According to Albert C. Outler, John Wesley’s publication of an abridgement of another’s work was seen by Wesley and his eighteenth century colleagues as a form of endorsement, not plagiarism.5William Charvat describes the 1840s as an era of “wholesale scissoring.”6 “The American weeklies stole from both the French and the English. The English, in their turn, stole from the French and the Americans.”7

Changes in public expectations

By the mid 1800s, things began to change. “The more readers and writers revered ‘originality’ as an absolute artistic virtue, the more the spectre of guilt floated over the ‘influenced’ writer’s horizon.”8 “One can detect a proliferating concern with plagiarism in the mid-nineteenth century. . . .American writers of the antebellum period were attempting to work out the limitations and the possibilities of proprietary authorship.”9

Once public sentiment had changed, the pendulum swung too far, hindering the writing of talented writers. “Tennyson was appalled by the ‘prosaic set growing up among us—editors of booklets, bookworms, index-hunters, or men of great memories . . . [that] will not allow one to say, “Ring the bell” without finding that we have taken it from Sir P. Sidney, or even to use such a simple expression as the ocean “roars” without finding the precise verse in Homer or Horace from which we have plagiarized it.’ This ‘prosaic set’ that Tennyson, Pope, and others railed against was the new breed of scholar—the ‘pendants without insight, intellectuals without love’—who trivialized literature, distorted aesthetics, and sought prestige and honor not through originality but by impugning the originality of writers of proven talent.”10

“Dullards, whose dearth of originality is only excelled by their consuming mania to be thought literary, become omnivorous readers and self-called critics. To advertise their own names they accuse such writers as Caine, Kipling and even Shakespeare of plagiarism.

“. . . Myths, plots, traditions are open to us all, but to adapt them, to dramatize them,—‘aye! there’s the rub.’

“In the daily affairs of life there is such a thing as the much scouted ‘unconscious similarity.’ . . . In mechanics, &c., the Patent Office could furnish innumerable proofs not merely of similarity of design, but of simultaneous identical invention by two or more originators in various parts of the world. . . .

“Who that writes for publication can recollect all that he has read?

“. . . Writers of established fame are impervious to the shots of these picayunish quotation mark hunters; but this rash, careless arresting of suspected thieves who, however innocent, may not be able to prove it, is working infinite harm. . . . A good thing were better repeated than never heard at all. And ‘next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it.’ ”11

“The first detailed discussions and definitions of plagiarism issue from this period and from the likes of Johnson, Pope, Goldsmith, and De Quincey.”12 The legal concepts of “proprietary author” and “literary work” took time to develop.13

By the beginning of the 1900s, accusations of plagiary were rampant. Mary Moss elaborates: “The points in which real plagiarism consists—treatment, atmosphere, character, observation— the points which make each man’s work his own, are as fantastically different in ‘Modeste Mignon’ and ‘Venus’ as an act of Offenbach from a string quartet in the third period of Beethoven. It is perfectly easy to tally certain likenesses; impossible, without quoting whole chapters, to illustrate the complete difference.”

Quoting Anatole France, Moss continues: “It is great luck, nowadays, if a celebrated writer be not treated, at least once a year, as a thief of ideas. . . .The truth is that situations belong to all the world. . . . A plagiarist is the man who pillages without taste or discernment. . . . But as to the writer who only takes what is suitable and profitable for him, and who knows how to choose, he is an honest man.” 

“Let us also add that it is a question of measure. . . . La Mothe Le Vayer . . .said: ‘You may steal in the manner of bees, without wronging any one, but the theft of ants, who carry off a whole grain, should never be imitated.’

“But as for stealing the bare bones of a plot or situation, a thing almost impossible to avoid, who would not rather be pilloried with all the illustrious thieves who have consciously or unconsciously appropriated and embellished any idea which came their way, then rest undisturbed with the critical punsters (it is the same mental habit) who excel in ferreting out unimportant likenesses!”14

“Ideas are not property so they cannot be stolen,” Deena Weinstein remonstrates.15 Holly Newman agrees. “The fact is, concepts and ideas are freely available for everybody to use and develop however they desire. The U.S. Supreme Court, in what is called the ‘Feist case,’ has said that ideas are freely available but that the expression of the idea can be protected.”16

Keith St. Onge rejoins: “The obvious response is our obligation to protect our original scholarship from the envious siphoning of lesser scribes. However vital that protection is deemed, neither the academy nor the law has managed to establish a syntactical minimum offense. A classic instance on the record is that of an otherwise sane professor of criminology who publicly claimed his surprising gift for identifying one word plagiarism!”17

So how many words does it take to be certain of plagiary? After running a number of experiments testing students’ abilities to write about well-known subjects without recalling material that was given in notes, McIver and Carroll concluded, “Any sequence of exactly the same 16 or more words that is not an aphorism, poetry, or words to a song is almost certain to have been copied from a written document.”18

Concern over how many of another person’s words one uses seems almost artificial. Of Martin Luther King Jr., it is said, “The black pulpit supplied King ‘with the rhetorical assumption that language is common treasure—not private property.’”19 According to one article, in the student papers of King there are six examples of plagiarism.20 The same source states that in one of these papers, “only 14 of 38 paragraphs are free of verbatim plagiarisms.” In another, “Only three of the remaining 22 paragraphs in the essay are not replete with verbatim plagiarisms, often of entire paragraphs.”21 In King’s dissertation, there are nine examples of plagiarism;22 in his speeches, there are five.23 Because of his great influence, the discovery of King’s plagiary hasn’t seemed to tarnish his influence as a speaker and leader very much.

Similarity not always plagiarism

John Talman admitted, “I am not rashly shouting ‘plagiarism!’ for that charge has proved groundless in as many cases as it has been justified.”24 When does similarity not equal plagiary?

When the borrower of language encourages readers to read his sources. The description of alleged plagiarism, reported from the New Orleans Creole, states that Rev. Dr. Scott “transferred to his own pages entire sentences of description, explanation, illustration, argument and appeal.” However, Dr. Scott was defended on the basis that he acknowledged his sources in the preface of his work and that he advised his listeners in his lectures to “procure and read” specific works.25

When the borrower writes from within the pool of his own genre. Dameron notes that a number of scholars have examined “Poe’s role as an author and journalist within the context of the culture and mass market of his day.”26

An anonymous New York Times article refers to the charge that novelist Katharine C. Thurston “derived the idea” for her novel from a work published 17 years earlier. Noting that there was “nothing particularly original” in her work, the article goes on to say that “its plot and its very situations have long been parts of the stock in trade” of the writers of the romance genre. “Charges of plagiarism are easy to make,” intones the article. “Every newspaper receives many communications embodying such charges from irate, well-meaning persons who cannot be made to understand why the Editor does not immediately lend all his resources to their cause. Frequently men and women of the highest literary standing are thus ruthlessly assailed.”27

When the borrower of language shows independence of thought. J. O. H. Cosgrove, editor of Everybody magazine, “didn’t think that [Jack] London had resorted to plagiarism. He had ideas enough of his own. In treating similar themes resemblances would occur.” The publisher of the book, Doubleday, Page & Co., from which London is alleged to have plagiarized, declined to prosecute.28

Edward Fitzgerald noted, “My canon is that there is no plagiarism when he who adopts has proved that he could originate what he adopts, and a great deal more.”29

 When the borrower “says it better.” “In every branch of knowledge writers and thinkers more or less appropriate the ideas of their predecessors and endeavor, as far as lies in their power, to improve upon them; and how many, I wonder, acknowledge the source of their information?”30As James Russell Lowell once put it: “A thing always becomes his at last who says it best, and thus makes it his own.”

Are these not applicable to Ellen White’s writings? In the next two articles, we will see how insights about composition cast her “plagiarized” writings in a totally different light.

1 John Dart, “Plagiarism Found in Prophet Books,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1980.
2 The suit against Dana was successful.
3 Theodore Pappas, Plagiarism and the Culture War; The Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Other Prominent Americans (Hallberg Pub., 1998), 28, 29. Others accused of plagiarism were Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Fanny Fern,
and Rose Terry Cooke.
4 Ibid., 48.
5 Albert C. Outler, John Wesley (Oxford University Press, 1964), 85, 86, found online at
6 William Charvat, Profession of Authorship (1968).
7 Mary Noel, Villains Galore . . . The Hey-day of the Popular Story Weekly (Macmillan, 1954), 6.
8 David Carpenter, “Hoovering to Byzantium,” found online at
9 Ellen Weinauer, “Plagiarism and the Proprietary Self: Policing the Boundaries of Authorship in Herman Melville’s ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’ ”American Literature 69, no. 4 (1997): 700, 712.
10 Pappas, 49.
11 Agnes R. Lockwood Pratt, “Plagiarism Impossible to Them,” New York Times (Sept. 30, 1899): BR651.
12 Pappas, 31.
13 Mark Rose, “The Author as Proprietor: Donaldson v. Becket and the Genealogy of Modern Authorship,” Representations 23 (1988): 51–85.
14 Mary Moss, “No Plagiarism,” New York Times (January 6, 1906): BR6.
15 Brian Martin, “Plagiarism: A Misplaced Emphasis,” Journal of Information Ethics 3, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 36–47; online at
16 Neal St. Anthony, “Rottlund Finds Townhouse Copyrights Only Go So Far,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune (Jan. 28, 2005): D6.
17 Keith R. St. Onge, “Plagiarism: You Know it When You See it (Really?),”
18 Robert K. McIver and Marie Carroll, “Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem,” Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 4 (2002): 680.
19 David Thelen, “Becoming Martin Luther King, Jr.: An Introduction,” The Journal of American History (June 1991): 16.
20 Martin Luther King Jr., Papers Project, “The Student Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research,” The Journal of American History (June 1991): 23–40.
21 Pappas, “A Houdini of Time,” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Plagiarism Story (Rockford Institute, 1994), 92; a reprint of an article earlier published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (November 1992), 89–92.
22 Pappas, “A Doctor in Spite of Himself: The Strange Career of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dissertation,” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Plagiarism Story (Rockford Institute, 1994), 50–7; a reprint of an article earlier published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (January 1991).
23 Keith D. Miller, “Martin Luther King, Jr. Borrows a Revolution: Argument, Audience, and Implications of a Secondhand Universe,” College English 48, no. 3 (March 1986): 249–65.
24 John Talman, “Longfellow and Read’s ‘Sheridan Ride,’ ” New York Times (October 26, 1907): BR687.
25 “Alleged Plagiarisms of Rev. Dr. Scott.” New York Daily Times (1851–1857); August 23, 1854, 2. Ellen White likewise recommended the very books from which she drew selected material in writing her books and testimonies.—D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation (RH 12-26-82), from which she quoted in The Great Controversy; Daniel Wise’s The Young Lady’s Counselor, from which she quoted in the Health Reformer (HR 07-01-73); Conybeare and Howson’s Life and Epistles of St. Paul (RH 11-07-1882 and ST 02-22-1883), from which she took 12.23 percent of Sketches From the Life of Paul. (By a stricter standard, David J. Conklin finds only 1.6 percent.)
26 J. Lasley Dameron, “Poe, Plagiarism, and American Periodicals,” Poe Studies 30, nos. 1, 2 (1997): 39. (Except for the research of David J. Conklin, this has not been done for Ellen G. White despite the need for such an examination being recognized with the
publication of Dr. Veltman’s study in 1988!)
27 “Topics Uppermost. Unwisdom of Hasty Charges of Plagiarism—Authorized Biographies of Two Cardinals,” New York Times (August 5, 1905): BR509.
28 “Charges Jack London With Plagiarism,” New York Times (November 24, 1906): 11.
29 “Where Copyrights End,” New York Times (April 1, 1899): BR216.
30 “Plagiarism in the Pulpit,” New York Times (April 12, 1896): 11.


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Kevin L. Morgan pastors the Warrensville and Wilkesboro Seventh-day Adventist Churches in North Carolina, United States.

August 2007

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