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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5 thoughts on “Copyright & Recipes

  1. cooknkate 12 January 2007 at 8:48 pm

    I always (ALWAYS) give credit where credit is due. While I am a good cook, if someone makes a dish I want to rave about I will name names, for sure. I think as long as I am doing that no one is going to sue me.

  2. cookingchat 14 January 2007 at 5:34 am

    I’ve wondered about this too, good article. I think I’m similar to you; I don’t post another article directly if I really haven’t modified the ingredients at all to make it my own creation. If I have made something very good word for word, ideally I link to that recipe in my blog. That is easier to do w things from cooking magazines or other blogs vs. from cookbooks.

  3. Rachel 14 January 2007 at 10:19 pm

    i agree, it’s a bit confusing. i always cite the author and the publication or book that the recipe came from. sometimes i just link to the recipe if it is already online and other times i repost the entire recipe verbatim and link to the book online at amazon. to me it seems like free publicity for the cookbooks and magazines!

  4. gmh 5 February 2007 at 11:11 pm

    Nice blog, I will come back and keep reading. Please take a look at mine, it’s about slow cooker recipes.

  5. […] 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 […]

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