U.S. Copyright Law is extremely clear, copyright “Does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients.”
As such, your grandmother’s secret recipe for pumpkin pie joins the ranks of high fashion and phone books as things that can not be copyrighted.
However, if you open up just about any cookbook that you can buy, you’ll notice copyright notices prominently displayed in all of the usual places. The reason isn’t because recipe books are lying to you, it’s because, while recipes can’t be copyright protected, other parts of the books can.
So, as we celebrate the holidays in the United States, we’re going to take a look at cookbooks and why, even though recipes can’t be copyrighted, you can’t just photocopy and share a cookbook legally.
We will also take a look at what cooks and bakers can do to better protect their creations, even if the recipes they develop don’t enjoy copyright protection.
The Devil is in the Details
While the statement above makes it very clear a recipe itself may not be copyrighted, that only deals with the part of the recipe that “listings of ingredients such as those found in formulas, compounds, or prescriptions.”
This means that the recipe itself, the ingredients list and the basic steps to reproduce it, can not be copyright-protected.
However, recipe books are not just lists of ingredients and steps, they are much more. They contain photographs, descriptive/creative text and other creative expression that aren’t part of the recipe itself.
This means that, if you took a cookbook and laid it upon a photocopier, you would be copying a combination of non-copyrightable and copyrightable work. It’s those elements that are protectable that would get you in trouble.
One way to look at it is that there is a great difference between these two passages:
Add 1 1/2 Cup of Flour
Add 1/2 Cup of Milk
Mix and then Pour into a Pan
Take the mixture that you’ve been working on, it should look like a soft cream, and slowly pour in one and a half cups of flour, being careful to pour it evenly into the mixture. Afterward, pour in 1/2 a cup of a mil and quickly begin stirring, vigorously mixing until your batter is even and smooth. It should, ideally, have a thick consistency but still pour easily and evenly.
While the two passages describe the same steps, the latter is much more descriptive and protectable.
So what does this mean for cooks and bakers? While they can’t protect their recipes, they still can protect their work.
The lack of copyright protection in recipes often frustrates many would-be cooking/food bloggers. Why bother posting original creations when they can trivially be ripped off without consequence?
The answer to that is two-fold.
First, the cooking community still has its own standards regarding plagiarism and takes these issues seriously. When chefs are caught plagiarizing recipes from others, there’s usually a stiff rebuke.
While that’s no substitute for copyright protection, it’s still very useful and it does a great deal to discourage recipe plagiarism. However, it’s important to note that enforcement, as with all community enforcement, is inconsistent and may not be reliable.
Second is that, while the list of ingredients and raw steps that make up a recipe aren’t protectable, the creativity in the presentation of it is. While you can’t stop others from replicating your recipes, you can stop them from replicating the whole of your work.
As such, here are a few things cooks and bakers can do to reduce misuse of their work:
- Focus on Your Writing: If you’re publishing your recipes in text format, focus heavily on your writing. Make your writing as creative as possible and as unique to yourself as possible. This is important not just for copyright reasons, but because there are so many authors publishing recipes that having a unique voice is crucial to standing out.
- Includes Images: Always, when publishing recipes, include images. While your steps are not copyrightable, the images you take of them are. As with great writing, great images, also help you stand out.
- Try Out Alternate Media: If you aren’t making videos, consider doing so. Cooking shows enjoy copyright protection even if the recipes they feature don’t. If you aren’t comfortable with video, consider podcasting. Getting away from pure text can help a great deal in protecting your work.
In short, while the work you put into your recipe is important, it’s the work you put in after it that’s protectable. Do not skimp on it, not if you want a truly original and protectable product.
While the lack of copyright protection in recipes may be a frustration for cooks and bakers, it’s also something of a relief. With so much similarity between recipes, it’s easy to imagine chefs suing one another repeatedly over coincidental similarities.
The lack of protection is truly a double-edged sword, giving you no protection over your recipes, but allowing you to freely build off the works of others.
Still, there are ways you can and should protect your work and the biggest is by simply focusing heavily on the creativity added after the recipe is completed. This is what other cooks and bakers do and, in the end, it’s why you can’t just copy a cookbook.
Simply put, it’s not the recipe that’s copyrighted, it’s the descriptive text, images and other material that is.