You've probably come across the infamous "footprints in the sand" poem at some point in your life. It's hard to avoid. It's usually used as a religious parable about having God/Jesus/something "supporting" you during the toughest period in your life. For many years, it was attributed to "anonymous" and found on all sorts of kitschy merchandise. Except, at some point, with all that merchandise, people started to realize that there may be money in "owning" such a poem, and suddenly, out of the woodwork, approximately a dozen different folks have shown up to claim authorship
-- with a few filing for the copyright, and a legal battle now ensuing. If you thought the saga over the Happy Birthday copyright
was confusing, you haven't seen anything yet.
Some of the stories of alleged authors seem slightly more credible than others, while some are just downright bizarre:
"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.
The real kicker, though, is that research suggests none
of the dozen or so claimants actually wrote the poem or deserve the copyright for it. One researcher has tracked the concept of the story back to a sermon in 1880
and it may go back even further. Even more amusing, that same discussion points to the poet Robert Louis Stevenson writing an essay in 1894, where he discusses tangentially the same idea of footprints in the sand... but uses it to explain why it's so difficult it is for a creative writer to avoid borrowing from the works of those who have come before. Indeed. But, thanks to copyright, there's apparently plenty of money in pretending you came up with the idea all on your own. For one of the many folks who "claim" that she wrote the poem, and who has been most aggressive about licensing it, it has turned into "best-remunerated poem in history," according to her lawyer. Those footprints in the sand sure can carry a lot of weight, but what good does it do if it doesn't come with a copyright and a boatload of cash?