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?
Then you might consider the marketing prowess of one of the suit's defendants, a 68-year-old Canadian poet and "itinerant evangelist" named Margaret Fishback Powers. She has said she wrote the poem in 1964, "searching for direction at a crossroads in her life," according to her author bio, while on the shores of a lake at a youth camp in Ontario.
She sold the poem to HarperCollins Canada in a 1992 book deal, along with her autobiographical account of how she wrote it, lost it and rediscovered it once the world had already been moved to hang it on refrigerators and church youth-room walls. Several "Footprints" titles by Powers followed, with merchandise.
Powers's San Francisco-based attorney, John A. Hughes (who once helped a business called Bath and Beyond reach a nice settlement with the megalithic Bed Bath & Beyond, according to his résumé), said Powers included the poem in a self-published collection of her work in 1986, and for what it's worth (not a lot), she also filed a copyright then.
To date, Powers -- with counsel -- has been the most aggressive and monetizing Footprinter. She is currently traveling and couldn't be reached (or served with papers, yet), but her attorney said he has occasionally persuaded tchotchke manufacturers to attribute the poem to her. Hughes said Powers has made "little" money from "Footprints" licensing and what she did make, she put toward her youth ministry programs. If you were to walk the floors of a Christian products trade show, Hughes guessed, "about a third" of all the "Footprints" products would have a license from Powers, or at least credit her. ("It's even on an ashtray," Hughes offered, as well as a large, engraved garden stone, which happens to be sitting in his office.)
"It's clear that Margaret is the real author," Hughes said of the suit. He tangled briefly with Stevenson or her representatives about a decade ago when a caretaker for Stevenson unsuccessfully attempted to get a trademark for "Footprints."
"If [Zangare] has any document between 1936 or 1964 that shows Mary Stevenson wrote the poem, then let's see it," Hughes said.
Meanwhile, there's Carolyn Joyce Carty, the other defendant in Zangare's suit. A self-proclaimed child prodigy and "world renowned poet laureate," Carty surfaced in the "Footprints" debate earlier this decade, saying she wrote the poem in 1963, when she was 6 years old, as an epilogue to a longer story she called "The Footprints of God."
Actually, she claims her grandmother first wrote it in 1922, and then young Carolyn wrote it, and it is unclear, from a brief e-mail exchange with a reporter, if Carty understands what it means to have written something. She also filed a copyright on "Footprints," claiming it as her "contribution to society." She maintains a wondrously baffling "Footprints" Web site where, among other things, she claims she wrote the lyrics to "In My Life" before the Beatles did.
"Basil Zangare's lawsuit is frivolous and has no merit as far as I am concerned," Carty wrote in response to an e-mail sent though a link on her Web site, adding that she "never collected one single penny for my work. [It] is free and available on my Web site for the public to download." (Bartel, Zangare's attorney, said he was able, a few weeks ago, to order "Footprints" material from Carty online, "and it cost 14 or 15 dollars. . . . She is trading off the 'Footprints' poem.")
Although the lawsuit says that Carty lives in North Carolina, she declined to provide The Post with any details about where she now lives: "Sorry, that is private information. Just to let you know, Zangare has been unsuccessful at having those papers served. I have not received any notice." ("She's a ghost," Bartel marveled, saying he hired private investigators to track her down, following leads in several states. "It's amazing about the World Wide Web -- these people can be all over the Internet and impossible to actually find.")
Zangare has named only two defendants, but others have also claimed authorship, including an Oregon man named Burrell Webb. He has said he wrote the poem in 1958 after his girlfriend dumped him. (He has also said he paid for his own polygraph to prove it.)
Last fall, in an online article for the Poetry Foundation, a Brooklyn journalist and literary sleuth named Rachel Aviv traced elements of "Footprints" to a sermon delivered in 1880, and raised the tantalizing possibility that nobody really wrote "Footprints in the Sand." Those who have claimed to, Aviv noted, may be suffering from the collective "accidental plagiarism" that Carl Jung explored in his paper "Cryptomnesia" more than a century ago.
Everyone knows a cryptomnesiast, of one sort or another. It's your cousin who stood up at Peepaw's funeral and tried to pass off the "Do not cry, I did not die" poem as his own; or those crafty tykes who keep submitting bits of Shel Silverstein as original verse to The Post's kids' poetry contest. It's the woman who sends you a sympathy card after your dog dies, with her handwritten version of the (also disputed) fable about dogs waiting for their masters in Heaven. It's your church pastor or corporate motivational speaker who keeps coming up with those amazing "I-recently-met-a-man-who" anecdotes to illustrate his point.
Something can be so profound, so true, (so "duh") that the cryptomnesiast is sure she thought it up herself. There is very little you can buy at a crafts fair or in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble that doesn't have a whiff of the unattributed.
So why go after the origin of "Footprints" now, after all these years? Why a lawsuit?
"Because someone is trying to take credit for it," Bartel said, for the plaintiff.
" 'Why now?' is my question, too," said Hughes, but he's confident a judge will dismiss the suit, if for no other reason than the tide came in long ago. "Mary Stevenson and her family have had 20 years to bring this suit."
And a lot has happened since "Footprints" caught on. It started out as a tranquil walk in the soft-focus mists, but, jeez, you turn around and it's Coney Island out there.
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.