What Would Jesus Do? A Parable About Copyright

Have you heard the saying “What would Jesus do?” Who hasn’t? In the 1990s the phrase became a fad among evangelical Christians, who printed the abbreviation WWJD? on bracelets, t-shirts, and posters, spawning in turn a host of mocking pop culture imitations. WWJD can provide a useful lens for looking at evangelical consumer culture of the late twentieth century. But the phrase can also serve as a parable about contemporary copyright law.

The phrase “What would Jesus do?” originated in a novel titled In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, published in 1897 by Charles M. Sheldon. Sheldon was a Congregational minister in Topeka, Kansas, and a Progressive concerned with Christianity’s relationship to the social politics of his day. His book is a parable about the Reverend Henry Maxwell, a minister to a wealthy middle-class congregation. Maxwell comes into contact with a poor man who owes his plight to industrialization, and is thereby jarred from his complacency about social issues. He challenges his congregation to seriously consider the question “What would Jesus do?” in all their actions. As his congregation takes up the challenge, their views on politics, class, race, charity, and corporations fall in line with the social gospel.

The long reach of Sheldon’s In His Steps was due in large part to its message, which appealed to both mainline and evangelical Christians, and to its simple though not particularly literary prose. But its long reach was also due to a simple mistake by Sheldon’s publisher: the book was never properly copyrighted.

In the 1890s, copyright was opt-in, not opt-out. In order for a book to be copyrighted, the publisher had to register it with the federal government. Chicago Advance, Sheldon’s publisher, incorrectly registered the copyright, and so the book was available in the public domain. Many publishers issued their own editions of In His Steps, which sold widely. About the sales of the book, Paul Boyer writes:

Owing to a defect in the copyright, sixteen different publishers soon had editions of the book in the market, and by the summer of 1897, 100,000 copies had been sold. And this was merely the beginning. While Sheldon’s own later estimate of 30,000,000 sales is overdrawn, Frank L. Mott, tabulator and chronicler of American best-sellers, suggests that a figure of 6,000,000 for total world sales would probably not be far amiss, with perhaps 2,000,000 of these in the United States.

To be sure, In His Steps would not have been a bestseller simply because of a mistake in the copyright registration. Sixteen publishers would not have issued the book unless it appealed to the reading public. Nor can the resurgence of WWJD? in the 1990s be attributed to the book’s being in the public domain—by that time the book would have long been out of copyright no matter what. And it is worth noting that the book was a bestseller: the failure of copyright registration did not mean that the book was available for free, just that Sheldon made hardly any royalties from it. Even today, the book is available for purchase in many editions, though it is available free from several sources.

But would the explosive sales and long-standing popularity of Sheldon’s In His Steps have been possible if the book had been subject to, say, the Copyright Act of 1976, or the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, or, worse, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act? If the point of copyright is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing forlimited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries,” perhaps there is something to be learned from the case of Charles Sheldon and his novel—a fitting parable for a Progressive reformer, indeed.