Recipes and copyright

The Washington Post has an interesting article titled Can a Recipe Be Stolen?. It addresses the question of copyright and recipes. Can recipes be copyrighted? If you take an existed recipe, and change around a couple of ingredients, does it make it your own? How much change is enough?

My own guidelines for posting recipes here is: if there was an original recipe that is widely available, either in printed form or on the web, I make sure to cite it even if I change some things around. If I try a recipe that's online without changing anything about it, I simply post a link to it here in in the main blog articles, or in my under the tag "recipes". If it's a recipe that I either came up with sort of on my own, or is a classic (such as many of my Japanese recipes for things like sushi rice) then I don't cite it. Many classic recipes I've more or less inherited, from various people like my mother, but I can't remember what came from where in most cases.

As for my own recipes posted here, they are published under the nicely comfortable Creative Commons license that appears as a footer on every page.

How do you handle recipes you post online? Do you worry about copyright at all? Also, what rights if any do you retain for recipes you do write about?

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Most of the recipes I've posted have been here: For my contributions, I give attribution to the source, and I note any changes I've made.

There is a weird clause in the US copyright law that says, "In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." I've always interpreted this to include recipes. The documentation for recipes submission from the copyright office is ambivalent as well, since it says there "may" be basis for copyright protection for cookbooks and recipes.

(I've done extensive research on copyrights for my job.)

I understand the need to protect from the theft of ideas, and respect the laws concerning it. My personal take on recipes and other creative works, however, is that the copyright law is too stringent and does not allow for creative expression-- how many works of art have been inspired or based on others before it?

Maki, I think you have a good and sensible system for trying to respect people's copyright and give attribution where it's due. I try to give attribution to the appropriate person whenever I post a recipe although I think I need to be more systematic about it, so I think I may use your system as a model if you don't mind. Most of my recipes are usually a mixture of what my parents taught me, what I found in a cookbook, and whatever tinkering I decided to make to the recipe, so I'm always a little confused about how to properly acknowledge people, especially when the recipe is very traditional and what most people do on their own.

I think that the clause cited in the previous comment is trying to draw a distinction between an idea and the expression of an idea. This plays out in the idea that the writer cannot copyright a list of ingredients for the recipe - (flour, eggs, yeast, salt, sugar) that's not really creative, that's not really an expression I would think - but you can copyright the way that you describe how to properly mix the ingredients to make bread, what the baker should be seeing, the texture of the dough that is being formed, because that is more expressive or at least brings in more of the writer's observations and experience, their individuality and creativity, come into play rather than just listing a few items on a page. Anyway, just my two cents on how I think copyright works. It doesn't really protect the idea - how many plots have been used again and again - but the originality in expressing those ideas.

I almost never worry about plagiarizing a recipe, even inadvertently, for two reasons. One, I almost never use the recipe as more than a guideline. That said, I should add I seldom do cake kinds of things where you have to measure carefully and follow the instructions to the letter.

Second, when I copy a recipe online, I always paste the link to its source at the top of the file - no chance of thinking it's mine a year later, when it really isn't.

I have a copyright statement on every post, though I do plan on checking out the creative commons thing. One of about a hundred blog-related things on my to do list. :G:

I wouldn't be happy if someone stole one of my original recipes, of which there are quite a few, because I may return to catering and teaching, and they will be a part of my livelihood. Taking them for personal use is one thing (and totally expected for a recipe), using them to generate income is something else. I think that's how most people feel about their material, whatever it may be - only its creator should be able to generate income from it, unless there is a signed agreement stating otherwise.

Then there's the woman who surfs the web, stealing other blogger's recipes and photos and putting them on her site, as if they were her own. Big no-no.

totoally agree on the pic and recipe of other blog with cut and paste method. I have always believe recipes are meant to be shared as long as credit is given back to the owner or creator. Say fo example, who knows a particular National Dish of whatever country was created by whom ? Doesnt that means the whole nation is using the same recipe + - some ingredients ?

Shall we sue the whole nation then as in Govt vs People ? chuckle!

I was quoted in that article. I hate seeing something that I know is say, a Nigella Lawson recipe posted on someone's blog without giving credit. Obviously you can't copywrite ingredients but the directions are always unique and often in the author's "voice". That's just plagarism. For my personal food blog, I made a choice to only post orginial recipes.

Hi Maki,

Given that I have a recipe site, I've done a lot of research on the subject, to the point of consulting a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Bottom line is that recipes (including basic directions) are methods and are not subject to copyright protection. Collections of recipes are protected (no one can copy your site or your cookbook); substantial literary expression (think Cooks Illustrated pages of background to each recipe) is; but the basic methods are not. Recipes can be protected by "trade secret" laws if they are kept secret, which is why Coca Cola doesn't release its recipe for Coke.

I have always felt that recipes are meant to be shared freely and openly. The more we share what we know, the more we all benefit from being better cooks. The more people who know our recipes, the better we can expect to be fed when we stop by for dinner. I also make every effort to cite the sources of recipes that I write about. This, I think is common courtesy. But a distinction should be drawn between what is the law, and what is courtesy.

I have noticed a couple of folks who have copied recipes from my site to their sites, including the photos (which are copyright protected), my introductory remarks, and the recipe. I usually find out about this because they are hotlinking the photo from my site as well. I usually leave a comment, which is enough to motivate them to take the post down.

Thank you everyone for your very thoughtful comments!

Hm, there are more thoughts raised by this that I think my replies would have to go in another entry :)

I'd never really thought about this until I saw this article popping up in blogs over the last week. The majority of recipes I use are my own creation or pulled off of the internet. From time to time I'll dabble in cookbooks for inspiration, but rarely (if ever) use recipes as exact guidelines to anything.

Besides feeling a bit uncomfortable crediting semi-anonymous internet recipe submitters (who's to say they didn't just copy their recipe from somewhere else?) I really don't see the basis. There are so many things that alter the end result of a recipe (the food) from quality of ingredients, technique... all the way to the kitchen location's altitude, that it seems trivial to worry about who the recipe really "belongs" to. The recipe itself means nothing without the proper tools and person to prepare it, whether it's the original creator or not.

I feel pride and happiness when someone uses a recipe I created or recommended. I'd feel differently if someone took my dinner off the table, brought it into their kitchen and said that they cooked it.

My wife was thinking about doing a blog of recipes from very old cookbooks. She was intending to list where each came from and comment on the recipes, but was wondering about copyright when she is saying specifically where it came from...

Jerry, I'm no copyright expert of course, but there is a general 100 year rule - after 100 years, most copyrights do expire. So if the cookbooks are very old perhaps it would be ok. If the cookbooks are not so old but are out of print, that's another out (but again, I'm no lawyer!) If you are clearly citing the source you may be safer in any case; many food blogs do post recipes from various in-print cookbooks, and I've yet to hear of someone getting into trouble because of this - and most food blogs do cite the source clearly.

I have a number of vintage cookbooks in my collection also, so this is a subject of interest to me too.

If you have just collected recipes from friends and friends of friends and wanted to make a cookbook out of them for profit, how could you possibly cite the original source or determine that it was or wasn't an original recipe?

I have created a website and i want to put my recipes on it but i want a copywrite so no one can copy my recipes. I am trying to create a ebook online so people can buy my recipe book. Could anyone help me on putting this together. Please email me if u can. Thank you.

Hi Desiree,
I have done this and according to my research (I'm based in Australia, so I used one of our governing bodies), as soon as you write the recipe down it is automatically copyrighted, the problem with copyright is that the burden of proof rests with the person who claims someone has infringed on their copyright. So if someone copies your book you must make a claim against them and prove you recorded it first. Email and the internet are good for this as everything has a date on it.
No matter what you do people will still steal from you, just like they do with pirate music and movies, the goal is not to stop them stealing because you can't, but to work out how to make money from them when they do steal. eg. i buy your book and then send it on to my friend for free, if it is good and you have all your info in there and maybe details of your next book, then hopefully my friend goes to your site and buys your next book.
Back to recipes being copyright-what my research said was that the list and amount of the ingredients is not copyright, but the description of how to make it/the method is copyright, so if you are copying someones recipe there must be a significant change in the method for you to get around breaching their copyright.
I hope that helps and good luck with the book.