The Case of the Knock-Off Cookbook

Cookbook author Joanne Lee Molinaro scored a major hit with her first book, The Korean Vegan Cookbook, which was released in October 2021. The book has not only been listed as a New York Times bestseller, but won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Vegetable-Focused Cookbook.

However, with such success often comes imitators, and one such imitator has drawn Molinaro’s ire in a significant way.

The book in question is the similarly entitled Korean Vegan Cookbook by author Rachel Issy. Though Molinaro makes it clear that there have been many attempts at imitation, this one went above and beyond with a similar name, a similar design for the cover and even including the same chapters.

To make matters worse, the name Rachel Issy is nowhere to be found online. There is no information to be found about this author, including whether it is a pen name. 

This has led many to speculate that Issy isn’t a real author and that the book was AI-generated. This is bolstered by the fact that, according to those who read the book, many of the recipes aren’t vegan. 

In addition to the non-vegan recipes in a vegan cookbook, Issy’s book is also a great deal shorter. Though Molinaro’s work is 336 pages, Issy’s is only 90, even though it sells for roughly the same price. 

Issy’s book is no longer available on Amazon and does not appear to be available anywhere else at this time. 

However, the case is an interesting one as it sits at the intersection of multiple areas of law, ethics and technology. It also may serve as a warning sign for other authors, in particular on how AI may be able to co-opt your work and do so without directly violating any laws.

Law, Ethics and Cookbooks

As we’ve discussed before, copyright law is very clear when it comes to recipes. A recipe, meaning a simple list of ingredients and instructions, is not protectable by copyright

This is a major part of why cookbook authors include a great deal of flavor text (including personal narratives and descriptive language) as well as photographs and other protectable elements.

This is something that Molinaro, who is also a lawyer, pointed out in a tweet about the copycat book.

However, this isn’t really a tale about copied recipes. What the books share are confusingly similar titles, nearly identical covers, and the same chapter headings. It doesn’t appear, at least at this time, that any of the recipes or text was copied. This, in turn, has fueled speculation about the book being AI-generated. 

But, while the copied elements certainly expose the intent of Issy, they may not raise legal issues either. As Moinaro pointed out, the name The Korean Vegan Cookbook is a descriptive title and will only enjoy weak trademark protection

To that end, Issy’s book is more akin to a Mockbuster, the imitation movies that come out shortly after or even at the same time as some major Hollywood releases. Such mockbusters are typically legal (or are at least tolerated), as long as they are careful to be distinct enough from the source material both in terms of marketing and content (and don’t seriously harm studio profits).

But while mockbusters may be an ignorable problem for movie studios, they could seriously harm smaller authors and creators, who may now be vulnerable to the problem.

The Canary in the Coal Mine

It’s pretty clear what Issy was attempting to do here. By using a similar name, cover and chapter breakdown, their book was an attempt to capitalize on the success of Molinaro’s book and, perhaps, dupe a few less-savvy buyers into purchasing the wrong copy.

Whether the book was written by a human, plagiarized from other books or AI-generated is beside the point from either a legal or ethical perspective (at least for Molinaro). The core misdeed was trying to mimic a successful title to the point of confusion. The book might as well have been filled with blank pages.

But the potential that the book was AI-generated does create a new concern. Namely, that it will soon be even easier and faster to create these kinds of “mockbuster” books.

To be clear, the time and energy it takes to create such books has been declining for quite some time. With online ghostwriting and self-publishing tools, it’s remarkably easy and cheap to create such an imitation book, even without AI.

However, AI does represent an escalation. This means that it’s potentially profitable to create such mockbuster books for smaller and more niche titles. Though major mainstream authors like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling have always had issues with knockoff books, it’s now feasible to create such books for a greater variety of books.

This, in turn, may be the way that AI intrudes into this space, by creating competing works that rely on confusion, not quality, to compete. Though AI can be used to write or generate some capable work, doing so still requires work, expertise and, most likely, a significant amount of editing.

However, in this type of work, quality doesn’t matter. Your vegan cookbook can have non-vegan recipes and it isn’t an issue. The book was sold on the confusion, not how good the recipes are.

This, in turn, means that trademark, no just copyright, is going to play a key role in combatting the worst abuses of AI. 

In short, even if the Issy book wasn’t AI generated, this case is something of a warning and other authors need to pay attention to it, especially if they’ve found success within their niche.

Bottom Line

To be clear, this isn’t a new trend. AI merely represents an escalation in this space, not a complete overhaul. 

The Issy book represents one of the most flagrant abuses I’ve seen like this. Imitation books that capitalize on a successful book or genre have long been a part of publishing, but this one went above and beyond to create a full-on imitation of the original.

While I am glad that the book has been removed, this will not be the last time something like this comes up. AI is going to make such imitation authors more daring, as they have less time and money investment in their work. The less investment that an imitation work requires, the more risk they take with the presentation and marketing of it.

AI will likely lead to a significant rise in the amount of copycat and imitation books being published. The question is whether the law and the marketplaces, most notably Amazon, are ready to meet the challenges that increase will present.

Amazon’s history here is not good, as they’ve repeatedly refused to take even basic measures to stop plagiarized books. If they aren’t going to take steps to stop a relatively simple kind of plagiarism to detect, they aren’t likely going to be proactive here.

That doesn’t bode well for authors, many of whom are dependent on Amazon for all or a significant portion of their revenue. 

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