What would Jesus do -- about copyright?

Never mind music or software piracy, even the realm of Christian merchandise is fraught with intellectual property violations.

Published October 25, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

Long before the words "What would Jesus do?" became a bumper-sticker staple, 35 teenagers in a religious youth group in Holland, Mich., proposed to make the question a central part of their lives. They promised their youth group leader, Janie Tinklenberg, that they would ask it before every decision, following the example of the characters in "In His Steps," a century-old collection of sermons that Tinklenberg was fond of citing.

Would they actually remember to do it? Tinklenberg wasn't sure. So she approached the brother of a friend from church who worked for nearby Lesco Corp., which specialized in branding everyday products with corporate logos or names. Tinklenberg was searching for a tangible item that would prompt her students to pop the question. She considered pens, pencils and T-shirts, but rejected them all because the items were likely to be too easily discarded.

And then she thought of W.W.J.D. bracelets.

"At the time, 1989, beaded friendship bracelets were popular," says the 47-year-old youth pastor. "I figured a bracelet was perfect: They could wear it all the time and it was even kind of cool."

Tinklenberg had no idea how cool the idea really was -- or how much money a whole host of entrepreneurs and corporations would make off her original brainstorm. But she does now. There's Lesco Corp., for example, which has sold 16 million bracelets to date. There is Zondervan, a Christian publishing imprint of HarperCollins, which publishes nine books related to what it calls "the W.W.J.D. movement." There are hundreds of Christian bookstores too, stocking over a dozen items with the W.W.J.D. label. There are even Giorgio Armani and the NBA -- both of whom have ordered thousands of text-imprinted bracelets from Wordstretch, a Minnesota company started by a former actor named Ave Green who admits that she didn't come up with the idea until she saw the W.W.J.D. bracelets at a Nebraska truck stop.

But Tinklenberg's own bank account contains no proof that she played any role in the commercial marketing of four little words. She hasn't received a single cent from any of these ventures. This summer, she did manage to win control of the W.W.J.D. trademark, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that because the logo had already become so prevalent it was now part of the public domain. She would never have been able to copyright a phrase only four words long, but if she had trademarked it back in 1989, she would have been owed a royalty for every sale of a product bearing the W.W.J.D. logo. Today, however, Tinklenberg can only sue companies that market products that defame her idea -- such as the parody advice column, "What Would Journey Do?"

Some people consider this a sin. "She got totally screwed if you want to know the truth," says Mike Yaconelli, the founder of Youth Specialties, a for-profit provider of books, videos and other ministry materials. "Even if it's legally right, it's morally wrong."

"We've now reduced the Christian faith to buying a $10 T-shirt," says Yaconelli, who in 1971 founded the Wittenburg Door, a magazine dedicated to calling evangelicals on the carpet. "Christians are very quick to point out pornography and drunkenness and a lot of other sins, but they're very slow to recognize that there is another sin in their midst that they're ignoring -- and that's the sin of consumerism."

Tinklenberg herself eschews any black-and-white condemnation of W.W.J.D. exploitation. Perhaps she's mindful of the history of the book "In His Steps," itself unprotected by copyright registration and consequently republished numerous times without any compensation for the author. But is profit the point -- or distribution? On one hand, by waiting until 1998 to seek a trademark on W.W.J.D., Tinklenberg helped the idea proliferate far and wide, thus fulfilling the Bible's mandate to "spread the Good News." On the other hand, as several critics of Christian copyright violation have noted, she also failed to enforce Luke 10:7, which states that "a worker is worthy of his wages." What would Jesus do with these alternatives?

Not even Tinklenberg is sure. But who could be? The interplay between copyright protection and distribution is a complex one, even when issues of faith and evangelism aren't involved. From Napster to fan fiction to the software code that allows your DVD player to work, the tension between how intellectual property is protected and how it is distributed is one of the defining issues of the new millennium. It shouldn't be much of a surprise then, that the W.W.J.D. saga -- with roots stretching back a good two millenniums -- reflects the same confusion.

The "What would Jesus do" industry was born in Topeka, Kan., in the 1890s. A Congregationalist minister named Charles Sheldon coined the phrase, making it the centerpiece of what was then merely an attempt to hold his parishioner's attention.

"He was kind of a showman," says Timothy Miller, a religion professor at the University of Kansas, and the author of a Sheldon biography. "He was looking for ways to entice people back to Sunday night services, so he hit on this idea of serial sermons and went with it."

The lectures weren't exactly literary. Written in simple language, they focused on several characters -- a newspaper publisher, a singer -- who promise to ask "What would Jesus do?" before every decision. In the age of temperance, the answers were often not what one might expect today -- the characters repeatedly resolve that Jesus would stop acting selfish and go help the drunks down in "the rectangle," a mythical slum.

The narratives worked -- in part because Sheldon was a fan of cliffhangers. "They were essentially soap operas," Miller says. "He'd quit just at the point where something great was threatening. The parishioners loved it."

They weren't alone. Sheldon also attracted a crowd in print. He published the sermons in a national Congregationalist magazine in 1896. The magazine then published the sermons together as a book -- "In His Steps" -- that quickly became a bestseller. By the end of 1898, says Miller, one publisher reported sales of 390,000. During the 1910s and '20s sales remained steady; there was an unexplainable spike in sales during the 1930s, and even now it has yet to fall out of print. As of the 1980s, the book had appeared in 20 languages, been published by close to 80 different houses and sold no less than 10 million copies, according to Miller's research.

This was possible only because of a copyright snafu. Unbeknownst to Sheldon, the magazine he chose to publish in wasn't copyrighted, so the book wasn't either. Sheldon didn't discover this until two years after the book came out. Yet, he largely didn't mind.

"He wasn't very resentful because it caused the book to spread very rapidly," says Garrett Sheldon, Charles Sheldon's great-grandson, a political science professor at the University of Virginia at Wise, and the author of an updated version of "In His Steps."

"It probably wouldn't have sold so many copies if it wasn't in the public domain," adds Sheldon.

Plus, a few of the publishers did pay him; Miller estimates that Sheldon received about $10,000. These payments -- tips, essentially -- are a far cry from the millions he would have earned had he copyrighted even half the copies sold. Yet, Garrett Sheldon admits that there was a trickle-down effect. He believes that his updated version -- which came out in 1993 -- would never have been published if the original had not already been so well-known. It also wouldn't have sold as well if not for Tinklenberg's bracelets and the W.W.J.D. marketing bandwagon that those items created.

So, can one conclude, then, that Sheldon is a critic of copyright? That the realities of Christian merchandising and distribution put him in the ranks of today's Napster fans -- the online music traders who declare to anyone who will listen that looser copyright laws will benefit everyone?

Not quite. Sheldon, like Tinklenberg, isn't certain whether copyright helps or hurts. "On the one hand, I'm glad my book has a copyright," he says. "On the other hand, the W.W.J.D. movement greatly helped my book and my sense is that it never would have happened if not for the lack of copyright. The solution may be to have a certain amount of protection in some places but not in all."

Specifically, Sheldon suggests, maybe the law should focus a little less on compensation and more on dilution. The problem with today's culture and the intellectual property laws that purport to protect it has nothing to do with theft, but rather with mimicry. "When my great-grandfather wrote his book 100 years ago, no one wrote an imitation," he says. There was a gentlemen's ethic, even in business. If something became popular, you didn't immediately put out an imitation just to take advantage of the fad. But since my book came out and the W.W.J.D. craze hit, publishers have put out more than 30 books with 'What would Jesus do?' in the title. Far too many of them are just in it for the money."

Lawyers say the culture should be blamed for this spinoff obsession, that the law will never send it packing -- and that it shouldn't. "Copyright law protects the expression of an idea not the idea itself," says Mark Radcliffe, an intellectual property expert and a partner at Gray, Cary, Ware and Friedenrich, a Palo Alto, Calif., law firm. "It's meant to be a limited form of protection. Copyright is meant to encourage 30 people to write about a topic, to encourage more creativity not less."

But Sheldon's, and particularly Tinklenberg's, experiences seem to prove that people like Hole lead singer Courtney Love are right -- those who create products, content or art ultimately need more protection from corporate hangers-on than from consumers.

After all, consider some of the excuses flowing from those who have made money from the question "What would Jesus do?" From the manufacturing end through wholesale all the way down to retail -- most of these self-avowed evangelical Christians (Russ Horton, the owner of Lesco, is not an evangelical Christian) see few problems with their expropriation of the W.W.J.D. movement.

"I never actually met [Tinklenberg]. I don't know anything about it," says Horton. Lesco sells about 1 million bracelets per year.

"My idea had nothing to do with the bracelets. My idea had to do with liking the phrase. I only became aware of [Tinklenberg] months later," says Jeannette Taylor, a Christian marketing consultant who in 1997 brought together Lesco, Christian music label ForeFront Records and Zondervan Publishing and formed a joint marketing agreement for a CD, book and several other items, which are available on its Web site.

"It's up to the manufacturer to pay. It's not our responsibility," says Michael Hupp, senior buyer for Family Christian Stores, a chain of 360 Christian retailers that sold 75 different items with the W.W.J.D. moniker in 1997.

"I think Jesus would be extremely pleased that these products are having such an impact on the world. That's the message that Charles Sheldon was trying to give," says Jeff Lambert, a spokesman for Zondervan Publishing, which filed a trademark application for W.W.J.D. just one week after Tinklenberg filed hers.

None of these folks would say how much revenue was being generated by its W.W.J.D product lines. But the Christian retailing industry earns about $4 billion each year, according to the Christian Booksellers Association, so it's reasonable to assume that millions of dollars are at stake.

And while there are those, like Yaconelli, who think that some portion of those millions should have been shared with Tinklenberg and Sheldon, Sheldon takes a lighter view, laughing as he points out the absurd humor of it all.

"It's ironic to see that either they aren't asking the question 'What would Jesus do?'" says Sheldon, "or they've asked the question and decided that Jesus wouldn't pay and so they don't need to either."

As for Tinklenberg, she eschews even a mild level of criticism. "I don't begrudge people making some money," she says. Indeed, when she filed for a trademark of W.W.J.D. in 1998, compensation was the last thing she had on her mind. Sure, she wouldn't have minded the cash, which she says she would have used to create a nonprofit foundation for youth ministry. But of greater import was the purity of the idea. She wanted to protect the letters from absurd profiteering, from being plastered on every imaginable item -- such as a "Christian" version of the Polo horse. She didn't want cash, just control.

"What was disconcerting was that it took on a life of its own," says Tinklenberg. "Once I saw that someone put them on a necklace that cost $400 -- $400! -- I knew it had gotten out of hand."

The straw that broke her back, however, was a W.W.J.D. board game; a perfect example, she says, of why she wanted the trademark, and why creators, not corporations, should have more power over how their inspirations are marketed. "It has 400 situations in which you ask, 'What would Jesus do,'" she says, explaining the game. "When you get W, W, J and D, you win."

The problem lies in the answers -- and the issue of control: "What I wonder is who's making the decision on what's right or wrong?" says Tinklenberg. "W.W.J.D. isn't about pat answers, it's about struggling with faith, trying to figure it out. The meaning is in the struggle."

If W.W.J.D. isn't about pat answers, then neither is the question of copyright, even if some of the larger corporations involved in protecting intellectual property would like us to think so. But given the turmoil that is engulfing the distribution and production of all kinds of intellectual property today, if the meaning really is in the struggle, then perhaps we are all due some level of clarity soon.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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