Who owns a food recipe?

On Behalf of | Dec 9, 2021 | Copyrights And Infringement |

Some families pass down recipes from generation to generation, but sometimes the cook will keep it a secret even from other family members. Other professional chefs have secret ingredients (or food sources) that they are unwilling to share with fellow staff. On the other hand, cookbook writers make it their business to share with those willing to buy the book. But according to a recent New York Times article, there is little intellectual property protection for recipe authors, and plagiarism is rampant.

The case of the corn cupcake

A cookbook editor raised the question of infringement when a women’s magazine put a cupcake on the cover in 2011. The corn-on-the-cob cupcake recipe was uncredited in the Hello, Cupcake cookbook. Still, the magazine cover photo showed an exact replica of the author’s creation from the book: A vanilla cupcake with cream-colored and white jellybeans mimicking kernels of corn, a yellow fruit chew representing butter, and black and white sugars representing salt and pepper. There were even corncob holders on each end of a line of three cupcakes.

Different wording is key

The publisher’s attorney reviewed the editor’s concern but deemed it was not a copyright violation because the wording on the recipe was different, even if the results were the same. Copyrights protect original works like writing, sheet music, painting, architecture, and computer software, but the original authorship of a creative endeavor does not include cupcakes (or meals) ingredients.

Those copied recipe authors have little recourse but to confront the offender from the moral high ground. Recipe theft or borrowing is more of an ethics issue than an example of theft.

Anecdotes made a difference

As the publisher’s attorney pointed out, the text that goes with the recipe is still protected. This led to a noted British cookbook author of Singaporean descent pulling her new book from the shelves in October. The cookbook focused on the author growing up and learning to cook in Singapore, but she used recipes and anecdotes that were extremely similar to a 2012 cookbook by another lesser-known author.

What is protected?

Each situation is different, but protected elements usually include:

  • Introductions and anecdotes
  • Instructions that move beyond a list of ingredients and basic preparation
  • Photography
  • Design that accompanies the recipe
  • A sequence of recipes
  • The cookbook but not its theme

A long tradition continues

The recent victory has reinvigorated the debate in the cooking community, but there is a long tradition of cooks stealing, sharing, and borrowing from each other. After the advent of published cookbooks, the tradition continued with authors not citing the origins of a recipe – even James Beard (whose name is used for a top cooking honor here in the U.S.) regularly used and published recipes by other chefs without giving credit.

The internet also makes it easier than ever to share or find recipes. Authors are more conscious of this: some include protocols for crediting their recipes in a permissions section of their websites or books. The sharing will continue, but perhaps more mindfully, and some authors will definitely focus more on surrounding their recipes with original content.

Learn more about material that can be copyrighted.