Copyright, Recipes and the Closure of Recipeasly

On February 28, Tom Redman, an engineer which an extensive history in the tech field, tweeted about a new project that he and two of his friends had just launched.

The response was strong and immediate. Though some who use recipes online expressed extreme joy at the new tool, content creators were not happy.

That was apparent just three hours after his original tweet when he posted this follow up.

In follow up tweets, he clarified the nature of the service, saying that imported recipes were only visible to the user that imported them and that they were working to ensure the tool couldn’t be used to “take away from the great work bloggers & creators do.”

He further explained that he wasn’t making any revenue from the site, let alone profit, and that the hope was that it would drive traffic to original creators.

However, just two hours after that (and only five hours after he launched the site) Redman posted one last time on the topic.

The site, was shut down and replaced with an apology to creators saying that they were “taking down as we re-examine our impact.”

To be clear, Redman is not a villain here. He had an ill-conceived idea but listened to criticism, took it to heart and killed a project he had likely been working months on within a few hours in response to it.

Very few would show his compassion and understanding, especially about something they were so proud of.

However, the story strikes at a very deep divide in the world of recipes and at a tension that isn’t going away any time soon. Recipeasly may be dead but it won’t be the last service of its kind and, most likley, the next one won’t be as understanding as Redman.

The Tension Over Recipes

When it comes to recipes, there’s a growing tension between those that read and use recipes and those that write them.

Cooks of all stripes have long been complaining that recipes overlong and over complicated. The internet is filled with articles asking food bloggers and authors to stop including memoirs with their recipes or to otherwise just focus on the food.

However, recipe authors and bloggers have been very reluctant to do that for several reasons.

  1. Recipes Are Often Deeply Personal: Many bloggers who are sharing recipes are sharing things that are deeply personal or meaningful to them. As such, those stories or “fluff” is central to what the post is about. For them, the story isn’t to be discarded, it’s the core purpose of the piece.
  2. Improving Post Length: Though there is much debate about how long a post should be for the purpose of search engine optimization and readership retention, but the minimum is considered to be 250-300 words. Most recipes would fall well short of that limit without some embellishment.
  3. Copyright: As we discussed both in March 2015 and again in November 2016, recipes themselves are not eligible for copyright protection in the United States. As per the U.S. Copyright Office Circular 33, “A recipe is a statement of the ingredients and procedure required for making a dish of food. A mere listing of ingredients or contents, or a simple set of directions, is uncopyrightable.” However, by adding stories, personal details and images to a recipe, they are giving their work protectable components.

Clearly, authors have valid reasons for wanting to add personal touches to their recipes but cooks, understandably, just want the actual instructions. This creates a strong tension and it’s from that tension that Recipeasly was born.

And, even though much of the feedback was from upset creators, the site had its supporters as well.

It’s obvious that this tension is neither new nor going away any time soon. The challenge is going to be finding a way to resolve it without harming creators while keeping frustrated users sated.

The Normal Outcomes of Such Tensions

The Pirate Bay Logo

To be clear, these tensions are not unique or even unusual to recipes. Every type of content creator faces them.

Filmmakers, for example, deal with the fact a portion of their audience would rather not pay for movie tickets when a film is released. Likewise, musicians are struggling to reach (and earn revenue from) listeners that demand free streaming.

Creators are forced find ways to balance their practical needs, (e.g. Earning revenue, protecting copyright, etc.) with the often impractical wants of consumers (e.g. Free content, immediate access, etc.).

However, as that tension grows, so does piracy. Though piracy remains a problem even when creators do everything they can to mitigate it, the less happy consumers are with the costs and convenience of accessing a piece of content, the more likely they are to pirate it.

To that end, recipes have been protected against piracy. Recipes are already free (often with ads) and the traditional tools of piracy aren’t good fits as one doesn’t typically download recipes as a torrent file (though such torrent files do exist). As such, there hasn’t been much motivation to solve this “problem” with tech solutions.

Recipeasly represented one of first times someone sought to create an automated tool to remove this pain point for users at the expense of creators. Redman did not see it that way when he was working on the project, but it’s only a matter of time before someone does see it that way and doesn’t care.

This is not a fight that’s over. If anything, it’s one that’s just begun.

What Can Creators Do

Addressing this problem requires both sides to understand where the other is coming from.

For readers, it means understanding the reasons why recipes aren’t just a list of ingredients and steps. There are both personal and practical reasons for this and, if recipe publication is to be valued as a commercial art, both must be understood.

For creators, it means understanding that a lot of visitors only want the steps of the recipe itself. Making that more convenient to access, while keeping the reader on your site, can help deter the use of third-party services.

This could include providing “Just the recipe” links that take the viewer to a specific (non-indexed) page. One could even offer those pages to backers on Patreon or other crowdfunding services.

To be clear, creators have no obligations to give into the demands or even the desires of readers and absolutely have the right to defend their work when and if it is infringed.

That said, outright ignoring those desires is risky as we have seen repeatedly that users will meet their wants either by seeking out competitors that fill the role, or through outright piracy.

Either way, this is an issue that bloggers and creators ignore at their own peril.

Bottom Line

If anything is unique about the battle over recipes, it’s that it has taken so long for the to come to a head like this.

There is no easy answer here. Recipe authors have significant and legitimate reasons for writing the way that they do and cooks have an understandable desire for just the recipe itself.

If any good can come of the Recipeasly story, it’s that both sides can see and understand how the other feels. Maybe this can lead to compromises that work for everyone.

Either way, this tension is not going away any time soon and, for creators, that means some tough decisions must be made. What happens next is up to everyone involved.

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