Carolyn Carty says she had never seen the poem "Footprints" until last year. This is odd, not only because it has appeared on millions of cards, mugs, posters and jewelry, and hung in restaurants, stores, churches and private homes from coast to coast. It's odd because Carty claims to be the poem's author. Forty-one years ago in Hopewell, N.J., she says, she banged it out on an old Remington. A family member decoupaged a copy onto a homemade jigsaw puzzle, another onto a wooden plaque. "That was the last I ever saw of my 'Footprints,'" says Carty.

Then last May, while surfing the Internet for the first time, Carty typed "footprints" into a search engine on a whim. The tsunami of results stunned her. (A Google search yields 70,000 hits, including "Footprints" Bible studies, a "Footprints and More" Christian music ministry, mouse pads, screen savers, "prayer rocks," and afghans.) "I couldn't believe all these people had been making millions off my poem all these years," says Carty. "And I never saw a single penny!"

Since then, Carty has been on a crusade to establish herself as the original author of "Footprints," and to get what she believes is her due.

She has stiff competition. Two other women, Margaret Fishback Powers and Mary Stevenson, have claimed authorship of the poem-and, like Carty, copyrighted it. The three versions vary by just a few words, and all of them describe life as a walk on the beach with the Lord. At times of need, the narrator can see only one set of footprints in the sand. When she tells the Lord, "I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me," the Lord replies reassuringly, "It was then that I carried you."

Powers, Stevenson, and Carty all copyrighted their versions in the mid-'80s, though ultimately it doesn't matter who registered first, since copyright registration doesn't demonstrate original authorship.

Powers got a leg up in the struggle to establish authorship in 1993, when Harper Collins Publishers published her "Footprints: The True Story Behind the Poem that Inspired Millions." In the book, Powers, a poet and co-founder of a large children's ministry in Canada, offers a compelling account of how she wrote the poem after a pensive walk with her husband-to-be, Paul Powers, along a beach near Kingston, Ontario, in 1964. She titled the poem "I Had a Dream."

Her memoir, and a series of "Footprints" devotionals and prayer books, have been translated into several languages. The books have sold more than a half million copies in Canada alone. She's also licensed the poem to Hallmark Cards, and, through Harper Collins, to merchandisers around the world, including Lenox gifts.

How does Harper Collins respond to the Carolyn Cartys of the world? "We tell them that Margaret Powers wrote the poem and she holds the copyright," says Ian Murray, contracts manager for Harper Collins Canada. "That's our position." At Hallmark, a spokesperson says that of all the purported authors, Powers "really is the one that gave credible evidence of authorship." Asked what that evidence was, the spokesperson replied, "Honestly, I don't know."

Carty's other main competitor is Mary Stevenson, whose claim is chronicled in Gail Giorgio's 1995 book, "Footprints in the Sand: The Inspiring Life Behind the Immortal Poem." Stevenson, who died at age 76 in 1999, said she had written "Footprints" in Chester, Pa., in 1936, when she was 14. A friend of Stevenson's, Kathy B. Hampton, maintains a website that honors Stevenson as the author.

Hampton also controlled Stevenson's poem, sold related products on her website and pursued "Footprints" licensing agreements until Stevenson's son, Basil Zangare, who maintains that Hampton took advantage of her mother in her final years, intervened. Zangare and Hampton finally resolved a six-year court battle last year. Zangare now controls his mother's estate, and hopes to start licensing her version of the poem soon. "Now that the dust has settled I just want focus on the most important thing," Zangare told me, "which is getting the truth out that my mother was the first to write 'Footprints.'"

None of this fazes Carty. She spends hours scouring the web for uses of "Footprints." Then she confronts the offenders. After I published a parody in which Justice Sandra Day O'Connor erects a three-ton, bronze "Footprints" monument in the lobby of the Supreme Court (inspired by former Alabama Judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument), Carty sent an email asking which version I'd posted, hers or Margaret Fishback Powers'. If I'd posted Carty's version and credited Powers, she said, "then you are now notified that my poem preceeds [sic] Margarets [sic] as well as my copyright." I assured her the article was satirical and that neither version had been used.