Tag Archives: Copyright

Cooks Illustrated Cracking Down on Food Bloggers

I was a little shocked to see this post over at Alosha’s Kitchen. The gist of it is that she was asked to take down a potato salad recipe by the publicity agent for Cooks Illustrated. Apparently, they don’t allow their recipes to be reproduced in print without permission, even with modifications. Especially with modifications.

She posted the entire email conversation, so go and read it. It’s fairly astonishing. I found it hard to believe that this kind of behavior is sanctioned by CI. I like their recipes, the magazine and the books, so I want to think the best of the company. Perhaps the publicity agent is acting as a rogue.

But still, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. So to speak.

The skinny is, in case you were wondering, that you can’t copyright recipes, which are basically a list of ingredients and directions for combining them. No recipe is really original, after all; even CI admits that. You can copyright the specific literary expression used in writing a recipe, but if you rewrite the recipe and modify the ingredients, then it becomes yours.

And asking cooks not to modify a recipe? That’s just bizarre. Isn’t that what the writers at CI do? Melissa cites the example of the no-knead bread recipe that was first published in the New York Times. I believe a modified version of this was published in a recent issue of CI. So I guess what they’re saying is that once they “perfect” a recipe, then no one should modify it because it’s, well, perfect.

I hate to tell them this, but I have cooked a lot of CI recipes, and while many of them are quite good, some of them were spectacularly imperfect.

Good for Melissa, she reposted the recipe. It is a basic potato salad recipe similar to what I would make, although I don’t use sour cream. The point is, nobody can copyright potato salad!

UPDATE: It’s a day after I wrote this post, and I’m still steamed. Unless Cooks Illustrated redeems itself soon, I’ll probably be calling myself a former subscriber.

Copyright & Recipes

One thing I wonder about, writing a cooking blog, is how much I can reproduce someone else’s recipe before stepping over the ethical line into plagiarism. On the one hand, as a former professional writer, I greatly respect copyright protection as a means for writers to earn a living from their craft (although I do think copyright can be taken to excess, but I digress). On the other hand, there is a grand tradition of passing recipes around, adapting them and combining them, so that the original author is pretty much lost in the process.

Technically, as best as I can parse copyright law (which is notoriously difficult for even a lawyer to understand), a list of ingredients cannot be copyrighted but the literary expression used in writing the directions may be. I take this to mean that the creativity comes not so much in figuring out what goes into the recipe but how to talk about executing the recipe. If your recipe is very interesting to read, it’s probably more copyright-able.

I personally would never claim to have invented an entirely original recipe. Although I frequently come up with my own recipes, those are based on lots of reading and cooking, learning techniques and ways to combine ingredients. Sometimes I try a recipe but adapt it as I go along and like the results, so I want to keep the adaptations for later reference, or maybe share it with someone else. I can’t see anything wrong with that.

Where I personally would draw the line is reproducing a recipe word for word. That’s why, when I post recipes on this blog, I use my own recipe format — it ensures that I’m going to do some rewriting. I also generally change the ingredients somewhat, adapting them to my own tastes or adjusting the amounts based on my cooking experience. That way, while I wouldn’t claim the recipe as a Shannon original, I can at least say that I didn’t plagiarize it. Often when I’m learning a new technique or recipe, I follow the directions exactly. In those cases, I don’t reproduce the recipe but rather reference the source, so you know where to find it if you’d like to try it too.

However, I’m not going to fault anyone who does copy recipes to share, especially if it’s one recipe from a collection in a cookbook and the person is not trying to make a profit off of it. Claiming that any recipe is entirely unique to its author is rather spurious, I think, given the thousands of years of cooking history. (Unless you’re talking about watermelon and gorgonzola “gnocchi,” but no one would want to share that recipe anyway.) I would prefer knowing the source anyway, because if I like the recipe, I’m likely to buy the cookbook. I like cookbooks a lot.

So in these rather murky waters, I tend to err well on the side of caution. But I appreciate all the recipes my fellow bloggers post. And when I’ve had the opportunity to ask a chef for a favorite recipe, most have not hesitated. So I think among most chefs the tendency is to be open and share, rather than to try to keep a stranglehold on the ownership of their recipes. After all, like many living things, good recipes want to go out and propagate.

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