Who Made the 'Footprints'?
ALEX COHEN, host:
If the words, "that's when I carried you," ring a bell, chances are you've heard a poem known as "Footprints in the Sand." Some call it inspirational, others say it's schmaltzy. One thing is for certain - it is a megahit in the world of Christian retail. And now, as Nancy Solomon reports the "Footprints" poem is the subject of a legal battle.
NANCY SOLOMON: The "Footprints" poem, or franchise, is a conversation with God. "I don't understand why, when I needed you most, you weren't walking beside me? There was only one set of footprints in the sand," to which God replies, "that's when I carried you."
Mr. JOE KATALONO (Owner, Jesus Book and Gift store): You have some small cards, 59, 69 cent cards that people usually buy a dozen or so, and they hand them out to their friends.
SOLOMON: Joe Katalono (ph) has owned Jesus Book and Gift store in Green Brook, New Jersey for 30 years and he can't remember a time when anything inscribed with "Footprints" wasn't a big seller.
Mr. KATALONO: We carry mugs, you know when they have their coffee, they are reminded that God's with them. We have a Bible cover that - the same thing, when you close the cover up, you are going to say God's with me.
(Soundbite of music)
SOLOMON: Posters, T-shirts, there's even a "Footprints" music video produced by Simon Cowell of American Idol fame.
Unidentified Female: (Singing) He walked with me, footprints in the sand. And help me understand where I'm going.
SOLOMON: A Christian retail association estimates that consumers spend 4.2 billion dollars a year on merchandising of Jesus, so it's no surprise that eventually someone was bound to claim the anonymous "Footprints" poem. Actually about a dozen people have claimed it and three have copyrighted it. One of those self-proclaimed authors is Mary Stevenson, who died a decade ago. Her son has filed a federal lawsuit in a Long Island court, accusing two others of copyright infringement. One of the alleged poet pretenders, Margaret Fishback Powers, said she wrote the poem in 1964, and then lost it. She says she was surprised to find the poem in a store in the mid 1980's. Her copyright attorney, John Hughes, says Fishback Powers' story is the most credible.
Mr. JOHN HUGHES (Attorney): She has been a writer and has a body of work of poems that she's written. I think the underlying circumstances of Margaret's authorship are believable and credible, and in the other circumstances, it really isn't.
SOLOMON: Fishback Powers has indeed published many books, but virtually all of them are "Footprints" knockoffs. "Footprints for Women." "Footprints for Children." "Friends of Footprints." The son of Mary Stevenson claims his mother wrote the poem in 1936, and the proof lies in a hand-written copy. His forensics expert dates the paper to that time, but the opposing attorney claims that copy has since been lost, and so he's unable to have his own expert examine it. Stevenson's son and his lawyer did not return phone calls. Long before anyone filed a copyright, the poem was being reproduced on just about anything that could be sold.
Professor COLLEEN MCDANNELL (History, University of Utah): It used to be that that these images, people just assumed that God actually created them. Somehow this poem just came out of nowhere like, just like the footprints in the sand.
SOLOMON: Colleen McDannell is a history professor at the University of Utah and wrote a book called "Material Christianity." She says most religious items sold in the 19th and early 20th century had no attribution, but with the rise of evangelical retailing all that has changed.
Professor MCDANNELL: I don't think you would have this controversies if it hadn't been for the industry which is all behind this. It's not just the poem by Robert Frost - it's connected to this whole commercial industry.
SOLOMON: Back at the Jesus Book and Gift Store, employee Pat LeGorey (ph) emerges from a back office holding a big plastic foot shaped plaque, titled "Footprints For Children."
Ms. PAT LEGOREY (Employee, Jesus Book and Gift Store): The Lord will always walk with you along life's blessed beach...
SOLOMON: She discovered the poem 21 years ago when she was suffering from post-partum depression. Someone left it in a copy machine, and she's convinced that someone was God who knew she needed comfort.
Ms. LEGOREY: It's just that he has picked you up to carry you along.
SOLOMON: Does it say who wrote that?
Ms. LEGOREY: No.
SOLOMON: Abbey Press is...
Ms. LEGOREY: Abbey Press. That's the kind of thing...
SOLOMON: Anything on the back?
Ms. LEGOREY: No, no. Made in China.
SOLOMON: The plaintiffs in the suit will have 20 days to reply once they've been served, but so far neither has been found. The lawyer for Margaret Fishback Powers says she's traveling in the Caribbean tending her ministry. The other suspect poetess, Carolyn Joyce Carty, sells plenty of footprint chatchkies on the Internet, but has not yet revealed her whereabouts. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.