Search to Divine Authorship Leads 'Footprints' to Court

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

The single set of footprints in the sand -- as millions of inspired souls now know -- was that time when the Lord picked you up and carried you. It's a metaphor, people: He is there when you need Him most, and so is the ubiquitous poem known as "Footprints in the Sand," shared around the world on posters, plaques, Bible covers and all things decoupage.

But who wrote it? God only knows, but after years of debate that used to confine itself to the Internet, "Footprints" could be headed to court. Basil Zangare, a 49-year-old Long Island man, insists the poem was written by his late mother during the Great Depression, even though she did not get around to copyrighting it for 50 years.

Zangare filed suit May 12 in a federal court against two women who each promotes herself as the poem's sole author and true copyright holder. He claims they've made millions on "Footprints"-related merchandise, money he wants a part of.

After all those coffee mugs and framed copies, can anyone really own"Footprints in the Sand"? Can a court decide what the Lord giveth, and to whom He first gaveth? Is a resolution possible?

"Sure it's possible," said Zangare's attorney, Richard Bartel. He looks forward to one day sending cease-and-desist letters to all "Footprint" pretenders who are "trading off the poem," he says, calling it a simple case of infringement.

Only it isn't. Which is sort of poetic, no? Here you have what is perhaps one of the world's sappiest pieces of writing, that nevertheless gives uplift to countless believers who've found themselves down in the dumps. For years it was attributed to "Anonymous," which has a sweetness about it, a mysterious provenance indicating a profundity that transcends the mortal pen.

At least a dozen people have insisted that the lines of "Footprints in the Sand" came to them alone, usually by divine spark, differing only by a few words here and there. The stanzas all tell a similar story: Narrator dreams he is walking on a beach with the Lord (sometimes God, sometimes Jesus). After a while, narrator turns around and sees only one set of footprints. What gives? the narrator asks the Lord -- You promised You would walk with me, even in the bad times, but I see from my lone set of footprints that You weren't there! Ah, but, the Lord replies : The single set of footprints are when I carried you through the bad times. (Cue the gulls, the gentle sound of waves and the warmth of insight.)

The only problem is one of nagging details: proof of authorship, original publication, copyright, notarization, that sort of thing. "Footprints" has been adapted into different languages, and worse, a pop song co-produced by Simon Cowell. As a sure sign of its familiarity, it has also been wickedly parodied. ("Bull-[bleep], Jesus, Those Are Obviously My Footprints," joked an Onion headline 10 years ago.)

* * *

The debate over who wrote "Footprints" begins the minute you Google it, and then wish you never had.

Zangare's mother, Mary Stevenson, claimed she wrote "Footprints" as a teenager sometime around 1936. She used to give handwritten copies to friends in times of crisis or grief. According to her son's "Official Footprints in the Sand" Web site, Stevenson, who died in 1999, told her family that a lawyer discouraged her from seeking a copyright claim when she first saw the poem attributed to "Anonymous" as early as the 1950s. While moving to a new house in the 1980s, Zangare has said, his mother unearthed one of her original handwritten copies of "Footprints." By then, "Footprints" was already a staple of the inspirational tchotchke market, and Stevenson filed a copyright claim in 1984, which is included in Zangare's complaint.

Which doesn't really mean much, because anybody can file a copyright, on anything. In 1995, a forensic document expert allegedly verified that Stevenson's handwritten copy was at least 50 years old, according to Zangare. Which still doesn't prove a lot, but, reader, could you just have a little faith?


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