A Question of Ethics
by Pat Goltz
In this article, I examine the question of the wholesale plagiarism in which Ellen G. White, the "spirit of prophecy" of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, engaged, in producing the writings upon which this church relies. The question will be examined from a Christian point of view, an ethical point of view, and a legal point of view.
This material is based in part on my personal examination of the work of Walter Rea, author of The White Lie. I personally checked out roughly 80% of his examples, both originals, and White's plagiarized versions. His work is impeccably accurate. The remainder of this material is based on my examination of the relevant law.
Having made his case, Rea came under fire from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It has been argued that the Bible was largely copied from other sources, and for this reason, White was simply doing the same thing that biblical authors did, and therefore, it is ethical. This particular argument is being promoted by religious liberals who want to undermine the authority of the Bible, and it is a threat to the Christian faith of any Adventist or former Adventist, because it places the Bible on a lower par, with Ellen White, and when such a person rejects White, he will also reject the Bible. It is also based on some faulty assumptions. One of the most notable is that other writings of the times predated the Bible. This is simply an error in dates, a rather blatant one. The other writings came later; the Bible came first. It also assumes that there is documentation that other writings that were copied existed earlier. There is no evidence for this. It should be noted that biblical authors credit their sources when they are quoting, something that White did not do, which is precisely what got her into trouble. Observe the following biblical passages: "spoken by the prophet Joel" Acts 2:16; attributed to the prophet Esias (Isaiah): Matthew 3:3, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14, 15:7, Mark 7:6, Luke 3:4, 4:17, John 1:23, 12:38, 39, 41, Acts 28:25, Romans 9:27, 29, 10:16, 15:12; attributed to David: Matthew 22:43, 45, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:42, Acts 1:16, Romans 4:6, 11:9, quoting the prophet Micah: Matthew 2:5, the prophets generally: Matthew 2:23, and many others.
Did Ellen White claim that her writings came directly from God instead of from a human author? You bet!
"That which I have written in regard to health was not taken from books and papers...My views were written independent of books or the opinions of others. Manuscript 7-1867, or see Review and Herald, May 21, 1959, p. 8." Quoted in Maurice Barnett, Ellen G. White & Inspiration, Louisville, Kentucky, Gospel Anchor Publishing Company: 1983, page 39.
"I have not been in the habit of reading any doctrinal articles in the paper, that my mind should not have any understanding of any one's ideas and views, and that not a mold of any man's theories should have any connection with that which I write." Letter 37-1867, written to Waggoner and A. T. Jones, February 18, 1887, from Basel, Switzerland (White Estate). Barnett, page 40.
"I am glad that you are having success in selling my books, for thus you are giving to the world the light that God has given me. These books contain clear, straight, unalterable truth and they should certainly be appreciated. The instruction they contain is not of human production." Letter 339-1904, White Estate. Barnett, page 40.
It has also been argued that God gave gifts to others but meant that Ellen White should make use of them also, and thus fed them to her also. Ron Graybill argues in this fashion:
"It is possible that we will yet discover some clear instance where Mrs. White says 'I saw,' referring to a specific vision, and then proceeds to describe that vision using words borrowed from other writers. This would not necessarily be difficult to harmonize with our belief that such material is still fully inspired. Adventist Review, April 2, 1981, p. 7. Barnett, page 44.
"It could be that in some instances that Mrs. White, after experiencing a vision, just happened to find words to describe it in a book she was reading. But in my opinion it is more like that she sometimes read a passage in a book, was impressed by it, and later, in a vision, the same concepts, being true, were impressed upon her mind again." Ibid., p. 5. Barnett, page 45.
Thus, it is being argued that either White got her writings directly from God, or else she got them from other sources, but it is all right anyway. These two views are, of course, contradictory.
There are those that would argue that Ellen White did not know what she was doing. Was Ellen White ignorant of the fact that what she was doing was illegal, unethical, and a violation of the Decalogue? Absolutely not.
The first quote following comes from the Review and Herald, whose editor, Uriah Smith, and president of the company, James White, were both close associates of Ellen White. The second comes from White herself.
"Plagiarism -- this word is a word that is used to signify 'literary theft' or the taking of the productions of another and passing them off as one's own...In the World's Crisis (italics) of August 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 of our familiar hymn,
'Long upon the mountain weary
"Mother instructs me to say to you that you may be free to select from her writings short articles...in each case giving the proper credit." Letter of W. C. White to Dr. David Paulson, February 15, 1905, as quoted by Barnett, page 39.
Pastor Barnett personally supplied me with Xeroxed copies of the originals for each of these quotes.
Ellen White and her associates knew that when you use the words of another author, you are supposed to credit the author. Failure to do so is fraudulent. It is a lie.
In legal parlance, we would say that "Ellen White knew or should have known" that the act of stealing the writings of another and lying about it was illegal, unethical, and a violation of the Decalogue. She stands guilty as charged.
The Seventh-day Adventist church has been aware of the accusation of plagiarism for many decades. The White Estate has been withholding vital information from legitimate researchers for many, many years. The documentation produced by Rea has been in circulation for twelve years. In that length of time, the Adventist church has continued to permit the publication and sale of White's books, and has continued to conceal the plagiarisms and to defend White. Except in a few rare instances, the proper credit still has not been given in White's books. White continues to be the prophet of God to that church. The church has failed to address the obvious contradiction between preaching the importance of keeping the Decalogue and honoring a prophet who so blatantly made the breaking of the Decalogue a way of life.
There is one final thing to consider. The Adventist church claims that God spoke directly to Ellen G. White. If this is true, why did He not tell her that plagiarism was theft? The answer I received from one Adventist is that perhaps God did not think it important. This very statement completely undermines any claim that the Adventist church might make that people should keep the Decalogue. I rest my case.
Below, I will get into more detail about this issue.
SOME QUESTIONS OF ETHICS
Accusations of Plagiarism
One of the most significant problems in the Adventist church at the present time is the question of plagiarism. Specifically, it is alleged that Ellen G. White copied approximately 80% of what she wrote, and failed to acknowledge the human authors, but attributed her writings to God.
It is stated that Ellen White never claimed to be a prophet. This is a mere semantic game. It is said that she was more than a prophet, or that she manifested the spirit of prophecy in her ministry. By changing the terminology, church officials hope to avoid the biblical tests of a prophet. This is unacceptable. For this reason, I am using the terms "prophet" interchangeably with other designations throughout this material, all intended to mean that Ellen White claimed and the church claims that she was a prophet in the biblical sense, whatever else she may have been in addition to that, and for that reason it is valid to apply all of the biblical tests of a prophet, as well as any other biblical references which are relevant.
This section will examine the legal questions involved in this issue.
The Adventist church is said to have hired attorneys to examine the question of whether or not White's activities were illegal at the time. It is said that these attorneys found that her activities were not illegal under the law at that time.
The fact that the church hired an attorney is effectively an admission that Ellen White did copy major portions of other works. But the church cannot afford to admit that its prophetess was tainted by such blatant and systematic disobedience of the Decalogue, because the distinctive doctrines of that church rest on her works, and if she falls, it falls. It was necessary to find an alternative, because it would just be too disruptive to admit that the very basis of the church was fraudulent. And so, the leadership sought to do a whitewash. If leaders could not claim that White did not plagiarize wholesale, they must find a way to whitewash her activity. And so they hired attorneys.
The church has a history of finding a rationalization for what should be fatal to its existence.
As an experienced pro se litigant who has spent thousands of hours studying the law, and who has defeated attorneys in the courtroom repeatedly, I am compelled to comment that there are several considerations. The first is that an attorney is in some respects a partisan. Nearly always there are two sides to a question. One side may be invalid, but a legal argument can be made for it, because of the complexity of the law. The attorney who is hired has the duty to defend his client. If technicalities can be found to support a reasonable argument for the position of his client, he can ethically do so. In some cases, an attorney will even support a position that has no legal merit.
This paper will consider primarily the law as it applies to Ellen G. White's activities. Although I will have to speak some legalese, I will explain everything so that the reader not trained in law who will exercise a little patience will be able to understand the discussion.
There are some basic considerations in the question of whether or not Ellen G. White engaged in illegal activity by copying wholesale from the works of others, without acknowledgement. We will go into detail on these issues later, but they will be summarized here.
First of all, one must take note of the distinction between God's law and manmade laws. God's law is superior to manmade laws because it is perfect. Psalm 19:7. Manmade laws are an attempt to flesh out the details of God's law. Sometimes manmade laws are influenced by the fact that the men who make them do not acknowledge God's law, and they are therefore distorted. In the United States, our court system in recent decades has thrown out ethics in favor of a legally relativistic position, and this has severely distorted our laws. I will give just one example. Abortion is illegal under the Decalogue, because the Decalogue prohibits us from killing other human beings. However, abortion is legal in the United States because of this shift in legal perspective. The fact that it is legal in the United States does not make it moral or ethical. It does not negate the fact that it is forbidden under the Decalogue.
The second point is that the question of which law applies to a situation rests in part upon the question of the status of the alleged offender. A particular law applies only to those people who have a certain status. Perhaps the simplest way to explain this is by example. A doctor is bound by the law that requires him to have a license to practice medicine. I am not bound by that law because I am not a doctor. For this reason, I am not required to have a license to practice medicine. In the Bible, a person under the old covenant has the status of slave. A person under the new covenant has the status of son of God by adoption. Galatians 4. Seventh-day Adventists, including Ellen G. White, are under the old covenant, and for that reason, we may apply the law of the old covenant to them.
The Christian faith teaches that we are under a new covenant, not the old, and for that reason, the Decalogue as recorded in Exodus 20 does not apply to us, but to the genetic and cultural Hebrews prior to the death of Jesus. The law that applies to Christians includes the more stringent requirements given by Jesus for each of the nine restated commandments recorded in the New Testament. The law that applies also to Christians is the law of love, which is the underlying moral principles upon which the Decalogue is based. The Christian faith also teaches that God is writing His law on our hearts, and for that reason, we are not to teach it to each other. Jeremiah 31:31-34. The Christian faith also teaches that our law-keeping under the new covenant is done by the Holy Ghost, not ourselves, and for this reason, we are not to dwell on the consideration of our works, because in so doing, we are arrogating back to ourselves the doing of works, something which God does through us by virtue of our faith. However, since the Seventy-day Adventist church teaches that we are to keep the Decalogue, for whatever reason, which is another discussion, that puts Adventists squarely under the old covenant, including Ellen G. White. For this reason, it is valid to discuss White's behavior in terms of the old covenant.
The third point is that the attorneys who examined the question of Ellen White's activity were concentrating on whether or not she violated the copyrights of the original authors, rather than on whether or not she disobeyed the Decalogue. Sometimes in law, we fail to ask the right question, and for that reason, we get the right answer to the wrong question. In order to understand why the Adventist attorneys "got the right answer to the wrong question", we must examine the nature of copyrights in some detail. We will also show that in fact Ellen G. White did violate the copyrights of some of the authors she copied. For the moment, we will summarize the major points.
The Decalogue recognizes the right to property. Exodus 20:15. The old covenant makes that right absolute in regard to land, which was allodial, which is to say that the families to whom God gave the land owned it completely. They could not sell it permanently; it reverted back to the family in the jubilee year. In addition, all possessions were returned to the original owner. Leviticus 25:13. American law has never fully recognized allodial title, neither to land nor chattel, although attempts have been made. The fact that the Declaration of Independence recognizes the right to propety but the Constitution substitutes "pursuit of happiness" for "property" is an illustration of that. Most of our problems as a nation stem from the failure to recognize the right to property as an inalienable right. Our problems are aggravated to the degree they depart from Exodus 20:15. As a nation, we are not totally Christian; those of us, who are not, are still under the old covenant. Problems arise when people fail to obey the Decalogue, or fail to permit the Holy Spirit to live through them, such that they do not respect the property rights of others.
The production of a man, including those things he produces by exercising his mind, belongs to the man who produced them. Everything we have and are is a gift from God. However, God designated each of His gifts for specific people, for their personal use in this life. Those to whom God did not give a particular gift are not entitled to the use of it. Neither are those who did not produce something with that gift entitled to what was produced. This is the reason for Exodus 20:15.
Plagiarism, or the pirating of the writings of others, did not become a major problem until certain technological advances took place, most notably the invention of the printing press, in the western world. Once plagiarism became easy to accomplish, the law to protect the authors' rights in their literary property developed somewhat slowly. The law of the United States is based upon that of England. The earliest laws in England did not protect the rights of the authors at all, but protected the privileges granted to stationers, who were the publishers of the day. Only those works that supported the legal positions of the monarchy were licensed. This was, in effect, censorship. The first true copyright law was the Statute of Anne, enacted under Queen Anne of England, 8 Anne ch. 19 (1710). Congress was granted authority to enact laws to protect the copyright, United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. Four major copyright laws were enacted before or during White's literary career: one in 1790, 1 Stat 124; one in 1802, 2 Stat 171; one in 1831, 4 Stat 436; and one in 1870, 18 Stat 957. One final major statute was enacted just prior to her death, in 1909.
Plagiarism is the act of taking the literary property of others without acknowledging the source. It has always been legal to quote or paraphrase the work of others as long as we place it in quotation marks and note where the material originated. Ellen White's crime did not consist of quoting or paraphrasing others, but in doing so without telling us where she got the material. Ellen White coveted the literary property of others in violation of Exodus 20:17, stole it in violation of Exodus 20:15, and then lied about where it came from in violation of Exodus 20:16, by claiming it came directly from God. She did this systematically. It was a way of life for her. To permit this, honor the perpetrator, and profit from her activities, on the one hand, and then condemn others for violating the Decalogue, on the other, is contradictory. It is an ethical problem with the Seventh-day Adventist church: a major one.
I will show that Ellen G. White was in violation of the copyright laws of her day in some of her plagiarisms, below. In fact, White disregarded the question altogether, and pirated others' writings indiscriminately.
Finally, there is a distinction between violating a copyright and plagiarism. Copyrights were designed to protect two competing interests. The first was the absolute right of an author in his productions. This included the need to encourage an author's productions for the betterment of society. The second was the public policy of encouraging the availability of intellectual productions by keeping the price within reach of individuals. 29 Wayne L. Rev. 1119 (1983). A copyright which was protected by law was not absolute, but was a protection for a period of years. After that, the material entered the public domain. At first, it was protected for fourteen years, with the possibility of renewal for an additional fourteen. By the time Ellen White's literary career began, the law had extended the protection to twenty-eight years, renewable for an additional fourteen. Today, the law protects a man's works for his lifetime plus fifty years. The protection of a copyright is only that of the ability to secure the cooperation of the courts in enforcing that right. It does not address the question of whether or not a plagiarist has taken that which belongs to someone else, but only whether as a matter of public policy we will give the other person a remedy in the courts.
As we learn more about how we react to the details of our attempts to flesh out God's law, our laws change. It is vitally important to realize that the ways in which our laws change illustrate the flaw in the reasoning that if an activity is legal at the time of its commission, there is nothing morally wrong with it, either. While we cannot penalize someone for committing an act which is not illegal under manmade laws, God can. Our judgment of whether or not Ellen White acted in accord with the Decalogue is a very different question from the one of whether or not she acted in accord with the law of the land at the time, and it is the only valid question. The question, then, is not whether White violated the copyrights of the authors, but whether she plagiarized, or stole what was rightfully theirs, even though not explicitly protected by law.
We will examine the evidence that Ellen White copied wholesale from other authors and passed off their writings as her own, inspired directly from God. This evidence will be considered relatively briefly; a person wanting more extensive information is referred to Walter T. Rea's book The White Lie, Turlock, CA, M & R Publications: 1982. Rea is a former Adventist minister who has extensively documented the case for plagiarism against Ellen G. White. He has been expelled from the denomination. There are those that argue that Rea wrote because of sour grapes, not having received a promotion he wanted within the church. This is an ad hominem attack, which does not defeat his work. If his work is accurate, his motives are not relevant.
I have personally verified the majority of Rea's work, and find it quite accurate. Except for differences due to the fact that I was unable to obtain the same edition of an original work that Rea used for his research, which applies to only one source, I find his work to be completely accurate with only the exceptions of minor capitalization, punctuation, and a handful of spelling differences. In comparing the original quotations with the quotations from White's works, I have found remarkable correspondence either in exact wording, in paraphrasing, or in progression of thoughts and ideas. In addition to my verification of Rea's examples, I have personally examined other material to make the same determinations.
We have one burning question to answer, and that is whether or not what White did is ethical, and within the scope of the spirit of copyright laws in effect at the time she published her books. We will examine the degree to which her activities reflect poorly on the God she claimed to represent.
Having studied the evidence for myself, I have had to conclude that were I a juror in a case in which I had to decide whether or not Ellen G. White engaged in extensive plagiarism, based on the evidence I have seen, I would have to find her guilty as charged.
The remainder of this section will deal with the law to be applied to the case.
One principle of law is that if a definition of a term is not given in the law, then the definition in common use is accepted for legal purposes. We will establish the parameters of our discussion, therefore, by quoting some definitions from a dictionary published prior to White's writing career: American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster 1828, reprinted as part of the American Christian History Education Series.
"PLA'GIARISM, n. [from plagiary.] The act of purloining another man's literary works, or introducing passages from another man's writings and putting them off as one's own; literary theft. Swift
"PLA'GIARIST, n. One that purloins the writings of another and puts them off as his own.
"PLA'GIARY, n. [L. plagium, a kidnapping, probably from plagae, nets, toils,
that which is layed or spread, from the root of Eng. lay. The L. plaga, a
stroke, is the same word differently applied, a laying on.]
"1. A thief in literature; one that purloins another's writings and offers them
to the public as his own. South. Dryden.
"2. The crime of literary theft. [Not used.] Brown.
"PURLOIN' v.t. [Fr. pour and loin, far off. See Eloign.]
"1. Literally, to take or carry away for one's self; hence, to steal; to take by
"2. To take by plagiarism; to steal from books or manuscripts. Dryden.
Let us examine a legal definition:
"PLAGIARISM. The act of appropriating the ideas and language of another and passing them for one's own.
"When this amounts to piracy, the party who has been guilty of it will be enjoined when the original author has a copyright." 3 Bouvier's 3d 2596 (1914).
Notice that plagiarism includes appropriating the ideas of another. Notice also that it is plagiarism, whether or not the author has sought copyright protection!
In more recent dictionary definitions, it is indicated that the stealing of exact wording, the extensive paraphrasing of the exact wording, or even the similarity of organization of ideas, without acknowledging the original author, all constitute plagiarism. Ellen White did all three, extensively. It could be argued that ideas cannot be copyrighted. This is especially true under the current copyright law, which went into effect in January, 1978. However, in Ellen White's day, the organization of ideas was regarded as the literary property of the original author. It might even be true that what White did is more legal today than it was then; however, regardless of the variations in the law of the United States, what she did, stealing and concealing the source, is illegal under the Decalogue, and that is the most important issue. Regardless, White's mistake was to fail to acknowledge the source. She might have had the right to paraphrase the work of others if she had done this. Her failure, as I have emphasized before, was not in quoting and paraphrasing, but in failing to acknowledge the source.
With these definitions in mind, we will now examine the relevant law. The first statutes we will consider are these:
"Thou shalt not steal." Exodus 20:15.
"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." Exodus 20:16.
"Thou shalt not covet...any thing that is thy neighbour's." Exodus 20:17.
These words in the Decalogue have significance for several reasons. The first is that the common law of England, which is the basis for the law of the United States, recognized them. The second, and more important, is that the Adventist church places a heavy emphasis on keeping the Decalogue. If Ellen White systematically disobeyed the Decalogue, yet is held in high esteem by a church that places such a heavy emphasis on the Decalogue, there is definitely a serious ethical problem.
Going back to Webster's definitions, we find that taking the writings of others and passing them off as one's own is literary theft, and is a clear violation of Exodus 20:15. In order to make the decision to steal the literary works of others, one must contemplate that theft, and that would be a violation of Exodus 20:17. Passing off the works of another as one's own is clearly a case of bearing false witness to the detriment of one's neighbor, and violates Exodus 20:16.
It is vitally important to recognize one significant issue. There are those that might argue that because Ellen White sometimes copied work that did not have copyright protection at the time (though she did copy work still protected at the time equally often), she did not disobey the law, and can be excused. This, however, misses the basic point, which is that White took the work of another and passed it off as her own. I am not arguing that White should not have quoted other authors. I am not even arguing that she should not have quoted them extensively. What I am arguing is that if she wanted to quote other authors, she had a moral duty to acknowledge that the work originated with other human authors, and not with God directly. It would have been so simple for her to acknowledge her sources! All it required was a few footnotes, quote marks, and a bibliography. She could still have published the exact same wording she used. However, this would have undermined the claim that she was a prophet of God, and these were direct communications from God, and thus, it would have undermined the entire basis for the uniqueness of the Seventh-day Adventist church. This is so fundamental that there was no way she could acknowledge her true sources and still be regarded as a prophet of God. I think this puts the issue squarely. The church, in claiming that her work manifested the spirit of prophecy, has clearly established itself on the side of blatant disregard for the Decalogue, when it suits the purposes of the church. As such, it clearly establishes itself as an organization of expediency, situation ethics, double standards, and subterfuge, and most emphatically not a Christian denomination, for all of this contradicts some of the most basic tenets of Christianity.
The fundamental question, then, is whether or not what White did is immoral and contrary to the Decalogue, not whether or not the original authors complied with the copyright law in such a manner that their claim against White would be defendable in court. It is analogous to the abortion question. In that situation, at the present time, abortion is legal in many parts of the world. For a church that purports to teach eternal truth, the question is not whether or not abortion is legal, but whether or not abortion is murder. The abortion issue will be considered at length elsewhere. The comparison here is just to illustrate the point that stealing the work of another is contrary to the Ten Commandments, whether or not that work can be protected by secular laws.
The concept of intellectual property still remains foreign to many people today. Intellectual property is a product of the mental work of a person, such as a book, musical composition, painting, sculpture, computer program, and other such things. It is distinct from real property or chattel (the furniture in your house, the books, dishes, clothing, cars, etc.) The nature of intellectual property in the area of writing is well described in Black's Law Dictionary, 6th ed.:
"Literary property. The right which entitles an author and his assigns to all the use and profit of his composition, to which no independent right is, through any act or omission on his or their part, vested in another person. The exclusive right of owner to possess, use and dispose of intellectual productions. The term denotes the corporal property in which an intellectual production is embodied; and it may consist of letters, lectures, sermons or addresses. Carpenter Foundation v. Oakes, 26 Cal.App.3d 784, 103 Cal.Rptr. 368, 375." Black's 6th 933.
What this definition in essence says is that the productions of the mind, as made into material things such as books, called "literary property", is real, and for that reason it would be subject to theft as defined in Exodus 20:15. To argue, as some Adventists have, that since the gift of being able to write a book came originally from God, Ellen White was entitled to take the writings of others provided it is being done for the glory of God, is to miss the point completely of the Commandment. Everything we have and are is a gift from God. But God directed which of us is to have each gift, and the Commandment was designed to protect that very designation on the part of God. The gifts are given in part to make it possible for us to earn a living and provide for our families, as it says, "The labourer is worthy of his hire", Luke 10:7, and "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel," I Timothy 5:8. Clearly, God gives gifts to specific persons for their personal use to fulfill their responsibilities to their families, and another person may not take those gifts for their own use, period. To say that it is all right as long as it is done to honor God and lead others to God is to say that the end justifies the means. Such does not honor God, and is a curiously contradictory stand to take for the members of a church that puts such heavy emphasis on keeping the Decalogue.
The next relevant law is that of the United States. There were some statutes in place prior to Ellen White's career. These statutes were based upon the very United States Constitution, which says, in Article 1, Clause 8, Section 8,
"[Congress shall have power] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries..."
This particular authority was to supercede the common law provisions, and the additional legal protections offered to writers by the law passed in 1710 under the authority of England's Queen Anne, which formed the basis for our copyright law. The existence of this clause in the Constitution demonstrates clearly that plagiarism was clearly understood to be illegal well before Ellen White's day.
Under the common law, there were provisions to protect literary property:
"Common-law copyright. Authors' proprietary interest in his creation before it has been published. An intangible, incorporeal right in an author of literary or artistic productions to reproduce and sell them exclusively and arises at the moment of their creation as distinguished from federal or statutory copyrights which exist for the most part only in published works. Common law copyright is perpetual while statutory copyright is for term of years." Black's 6th 277.
From this it can be seen that the common law protected an author's unpublished work from unauthorized copying indefinitely. The statutes were enacted to protect the author once the work had actually been published.
The first statute, passed by Congress pursuant to its authority under the Constitution, reads in part,
"Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the passage of this act, the author and authors of any map, chart, book or books already printed within these United States,...who hath or have not transferred to any other person the copyright of such...and any other person or persons, being a citizen or citizens of these United States, or residents therein, his or their executors, administrators or assigns, who hath...the copyright...shall have the sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending such map, chart, book or books, for the term of fourteen years from the recording the title thereof in the clerk's office...And that the author and authors of any map, chart, book or books already made and composed, and not printed or published, or that shall hereafter be made and composed, being a citizen or citizens of these United States, or resident therein, and his or their executors, administraters or assigns, shall have the sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending such...for the like term of fourteen years...And if, at the expiration of the said term, the author or authors, or any of them, be living, and a citizen or citizens of these United States, or resident therein, the same exclusive right shall be continued to him or them, his or their executors, administrators or assigns, for the further term of fourteen years...
"Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That if any other person...shall print, reprint, publish, or import, or cause to be printed, reprinted, published, or imported from any foreign kingdom or state, any copy or copies of such...book or books, without the consent of the author of proprietor thereof,...shall forfeit all and every copy and copies of such...book or books, and all and every sheet and sheets, being part of the same, or either of them, to the author or proprietor of such...book or books, who shall forthwith destroy the same: And every such offender and offenders shall also forfeit and pay the sum of fifty cents for every sheet which shall be found in his or their possession...
"Sec. 6. And be it further enacted, That any person or persons who shall print or publish any manuscript, without the consent and approbation of the author or proprietor thereof, first had and obtained as aforesaid,...shall be liable to suffer and pay to the said author or proprietor all damages occasioned by such injury, to be recovered by a special action on the case founded upon this act, in any court having cognizance thereof." 1 Stat 124 (1790).
This first act of Congress based upon the Constitutional authority makes it plain that a person infringes a copyright owned by another, whether it be the original author, his heirs or assigns, by copying and distributing by sale any portion of the book of another. In addition to a fine, damages can be recovered by a case at common law (the meaning of the phrase "special action on the case"). In other references, it is made plain that it is to be on the case, and not an action in trespass. This particular distinction is peculiar to the common law, and the phraseology of the statute clearly indicates that fact. Black's says, "The distinction which formerly existed between common law copyrights and statutory copyrights was abolished by the 1976 Copyright Act revision; though Sec. 301 of the new Act specifically preserves common law copyrights accruing prior to January 1, 1978." at 277.
"According to the practice of legislation in England and America," says Judge Bouvier, 2 Law Dictionary, 303, "the copyright is confined to the exclusive right secured to the author or proprietor of a writing or drawing which may be multiplied by the arts of printing in any of its branches."...By the first section of the act of February 3d, 1831, 4 Stat. 436, entitled an act to amend the several acts respecting copyright...the period of protection is extended to twenty-eight years. The caption or title of this act uses the word copyright for the first time in the legislation of Congress.
"The construction placed upon the Constitution by the first act of 1790, and the act of 1802, by the men who were contemporary with its formation, many of whom were members of the convention which framed it, is of itself entitled to very great weight, and when it is remembered that the rights thus established have not been disputed during a period of nearly a century, it is almost conclusive.
"...An author in that sense is "he to whom anything owes its origin; originator; maker; one who completes a work of science or literature." Worcester. So, also, no one would now claim that the word writing in this clause of the Constitution, though the only word used as to subjects in regard to which authors are to be secured, is limited to the actual script of the author, and excludes books and all other printed matter. By writings in that clause is meant the literary productions of those authors, and Congress very properly has declared these to include all forms of writing, printing, engraving, etching, &c., by which the ideas in the mind of the author are given expression...
"Nor is it to be supposed that the framers of the Constitution did not understand the nature of copyright and the objects to which it was commonly applied, for copyright, as the exclusive right of a man to the production of his own genius or intellect, existed in England at that time, and the contest in the English courts, finally decided by a very close vote in the House of Lords, whether the statute of 8 Anne, chap. 19, which authorized copyright for a limited time, was a restraint to that extent on the common law or not, was then recent.
"...A deposit of two copies of the article or work with the Librarian of Congress, with the name of the author and its title page, is all that is necessary to secure a copyright." Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53 (1883)"
As you can see, this case was decided well before the plagiarisms in which White engaged ceased. It refers to much earlier law which makes the legal situation quite plain. It encompasses not only White's literary theft, but also the theft of the illustrations that appeared in the 1886 edition of The Great Controversy (Rea, pp. 147ff.) Lithographic Co. v. Sarony was decided three years before this edition was published, and makes it clear that art work is protected in the same manner as writings. The issue in the case was whether or not photographs are protected by a copyright notice, and the court found that they were.
What we have here is an evolving statutory law protecting authors from every violation of their rights that was being perpetrated through loopholes in earlier versions of the law. These new statutes were being enacted because these types of plagiarism were a problem. The biblical statutes, recorded in Exodus 20, are concise and to the point. We cannot get away with arguing that because they do not cover every possible instance and variation of stealing, they leave such instances in the realm of legal activity. They are specifically worded to exclude all such activity, not to include everything not mentioned. What later versions of the law serve to do, then, is merely to define the specifics of instances of the illegal activity prohibited in the Decalogue. Because of this, later versions of the law are informative. While it can be said that we cannot apply a penalty for the violation of a loophole before the loophole is closed, even though we could do exactly that through a case at common law, we can argue that God would find such activity in violation of the Decalogue, and would thus condemn it. What we cannot apply because it would be an ex post facto law, which is prohibited by the Constitution, we can most certainly apply because it is not ex post facto under the Decalogue, which was handed down by God millenia before Ellen was born.
Thus, Ellen G. White, the darling and prophet of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, systematically and knowingly disobeyed the Decalogue as a way of life, supposedly for the glory of God. She and the church proceeded to condemn others for failure to keep just one of the commandments of the Decalogue, which was directed solely to the genetic Jews. Such a position is sickeningly repugnant to me, undoubtedly to God as well, and should be repugnant to every Christian. By no stretch of the imagination can such a thing be condoned or accepted, or a church that holds such a position be considered Christian. And evidently, I am not alone in my perspective, in light of the fact that when this wholesale plagiarism became public knowledge, 100,000 Adventists left the denomination. Praise God!