Preliminary examination, such as done by Walter Rea, indicated that there could possibly be some “borrowings,” by Ellen White, of words and phrases from other authors.
If there were such borrowings, how extensive were they?
Walter Rea assumed that there must be lots of them; but, as we will find later in this book, there is actually very little of that nature to be found. In any borrowings that Ellen White might have made, was there actual copying or just rearrangements into a better form? First, the so-called “borrowings” were done so effectively that they result in a totally different book, which is a vast improvement on anything in contemporary literature. Second, as we shall learn later,—aside from a specifically stated use of historians’ statements in Great Controversy, we can hardly find any real borrowings! But more on that later.
By the way, other people have read through many 19th century books and have not been able to find hardly anything worth calling a similarity between her writings and those of others. Try it yourself; you will probably come up with zeros also. There is more hocus-pocus in Walter’s accusations than may at first appear.
What are the legal aspects of plagiarism?
It should be kept in mind that to take an idea of someone else and vastly improve on it is not plagiarism. But, of course, that presupposes that Ellen White borrowed ideas from others.
An important copyright judge said that, when dealing with any given topic, many of the words a person uses will be like those which others would use in describing the same topic. That is perfectly normal. And it is an important principle! It does not indicate collusion or copying. Ramik speaking again:
“In the middle of the nineteenth century—just when Ellen White was beginning to write for print, 1845—in the legal case of Emerson v. Davies, Massachusetts Circuit Justice Story in effect exonerates a writer who has used other men’s words and ideas and woven them into his own composition.
“In effect, Judge Story says, Only fools attempt to do that which has been done better in the past; no one really ever builds a language exclusively his own.
“In other words, the words themselves have been there for years and years. The crucial issue is how you put them together, and the effect you wish to produce from those words.”—Ramik, Adventist Review, September 17, 1981, p. 6.
An editorial in the same issue of the Review made this comment:
“Mr. Ramik’s 27-page opinion quotes heavily from court cases dealing with copyright infringement and plagiarism. We have spent considerable time reading and studying these cases. In the case of Emerson v. Davies et al., Justice Story, who, according to Mr. Ramik, ‘is recognized as the most influential judge in the area of copyright law in the era in question’ concluded that ‘the question is not, whether the materials which are used are entirely new, and have never been used before, or even that they have never been used before for the same purpose.
“The true question is, whether the same plan, arrangement and combination of material have been used before for the same purpose or for any other purpose . . [The author] may have gathered hints for his plan and arrangement, or parts of his plan and arrangement, from existing and known sources. He may have borrowed much of his material from others, but if they are combined in a different manner from what was in use before; and afortiori [more conclusively], if his plan and arrangement are real improvements upon the existing modes, he is entitled to a copyright in the book embodying such improvement.” —Editorial, Adventist Review, September 17, 1981, p. 13.
From what I read, Ellen White’s writings do not seem to be like other books.
It was clear to Vincent Ramik, and it is clear to any objective reader—that Ellen White produced original works. If there were borrowings, they ought to be easy to find. But the truth is that her works are different than others—yet borrowing would have rendered them similar to other books! Second, such “borrowings” hardly exist, although a few possibilities have been found.
It takes considerable imagination to read through any book written at her time—and come up with much that appears to be the same as what she wrote! The present author has tried to do it, without success. Ellen White’s writings have a magnificence above all others. They are in a class by themselves. That is all there is to it. The complainers can quibble all they want; but the Spirit of Prophecy stands apart from other books, before her time or since. Only the Bible writings compare with her statements. For this reason, in order to understand how she wrote her books, we must turn back to the Bible. More on this later.
What is an original book?
Judge Story defines what an original production is like. He says that, in an “original production,” “the resemblances are either accidental or arising from the nature of the subject.” That definition fits the Spirit of Prophecy writings very well.
“He [Ramik] quotes from Justice Story in the decision of Emerson vs. Davies et al.:
“I think it may be laid down as the clear result of the authorities in cases of this nature, that the true test of piracy (infringement of copyright), or not, is to ascertain whether the defendant has, in fact, used the plan, arrangements and illustrations of the plaintiff, as the model of his own book, with colorable alterations and variations only to disguise the use thereof; or whether his work is the result of his own labor, skill, and use of common materials and common sources of knowledge, open to all men, and the resemblances are either accidental or arising from the nature of the subject. In other words, whether the defendant’s book is, quoad hoc [in this respect], a servile or evasive imitation of the plaintiff’s work or a bona fide original compilation from other common or independent sources.”—Editorial, Adventist Review, September 17, 1981, p. 13.
But what about the volume of Ellen White’s writing? Since there is so much of it, surely she must have copied much of it from others?
Actually, there are very simple reasons why the large quantity of Ellen White’s literary output—all by itself—proves that she did not copy from others!