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Not As Bad As I Thought?

I was worried about finding things to write about during the 30 days of November, but for at least yesterday and today I seem to have veered off into an area of intellectual property law better suited to my “day job” than to my beloved foodie blog. (Well, I love my foodie blog). Although I find this whole recipe stealing/copyrighting recipes issue to be one that is no fun and that contributes to high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, I do think it matters to all of us who read, write and use recipes from food blogs.

To recap as briefly as possible: Friday night I was delighted to find a comment by famous food writer Barbara Kafka on one of my old posts in which I used one of her recipes. Verbatim (but attributed). I checked out her own site and blog, where I discovered that her most recent post was about “Recipe Ethics,” including folks who steal recipes and use them in various ways. Although my (sane) husband says I was jumping to conclusions, my Jewish-Catholic psyche immediately convinced me that her comment on my blog was a classy, gentle way of saying “please don’t steal my stuff.” So I apologized, on Kafka’s blog and my own.

As I indicated in my last post, I had done a fair amount of research before I posted the first recipe in this blog, and I still found the issue of what could and could not be copied to be confusing. I did more research last night, and I think I have found a set of rules that will work, allow us to post recipes we admire, and give credit where credit is due. If you are reading this and you KNOW that I am wrong, please let me know.

First, I found an interesting “Washington Post” article by Joyce Gemperlein, published in January, 2006, entitled “Can a Recipe be Stolen.” According to this source (and her sources) there is not even a risk of legal action unless one copies a recipe without attribution (stating where you go the recipe, and giving a link to the source, if possible). Gemperlein writes that: “The ethics guidelines of the International Association of Culinary Professionals focus on giving proper attribution to recipes that are published or taught. The association advises using the words “adapted from,” “based on” or “inspired by,” depending on how much a recipe has been revised…..The only time a recipe should be printed without attribution, the association contends, is when it has been changed so substantially that it no longer resembles its source.”

Take Home Message: You may use a recipe you did not write as long as you attribute it properly.

Next I turned to, a site about intellectual property law written by Gene Quinn, an attorney specializing in the field. In answer to the very specific question “are recipes copyrightable,”Mr Quinn explains that:

  1. “mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, where a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection.”
  2. “substantial literary expression”covers not the list of ingredients and steps that comprise a recipe, but any unique language used in the recipe.”  (To clarify: It is not copyrightable to say “saute, turning every five minutes,” for example, or to list flour, eggs, sugar and butter as cake ingredients. It is probably copyrightable to say “this is an old family recipe my mother brought from Tuscany” or “here at Elmwood farms we like to use our crispest and freshest Honeycrisps for this pie.)
  3. You can copy a recipe, but not a book. Quoth Mr. Quinn: “While you could copy a recipe from a book, copying the entire book would violate the copyright in the book, which is a compilation.”

Take Home Message: You may copy the ingredients and method/steps used in individual recipes, but not whole cookbooks, and not language that is unique to the author/creator.

Finally, I found some very sensible thoughts about these issues on just hungry, as follow-up to the January, 2006 “Washington Post” article. The author points out that some very well known blogs exist entirely for the purpose of reporting on the success and failure of recipes found in cookbooks, including 101 cookbooks. She also includes the thoughts of Elise from Simply Recipes, who states that she doesn’t mind people using, copying and writing about her recipes so long as they attribute properly and don’t use her photographs. She closes with the following suggestions applicable to using recipes from websites:

  1. Mention the source, and link back to it.
  2. If the site already has the recipe posted, don’t re-post it, unless you make major changes to the original.
  3. Never, ever hot-link to the photo(s) used in the original, or just copy the image and put it up on your own site. Take your own pictures!

Take Home Message: if you are trying a recipe from an internet source, attribute, link back, don’t re-post unless you made big changes, and don’t steal the photos.

All of this leaves me with a workable way to continue blogging about food ethically, and doesn’t mean that I can only write about (the three) recipes I have personally invented that are worth sharing. If I use recipes from a cookbook or magazine that do not exist in online form, I’ll attribute, remove all “unique” language, and refrain from copying entire volumes. So far, that’s pretty much what I do, except for editing copyrightable language. If I am copying from an online source, I’ll attribute and link unless I make radical changes. I don’t steal pictures, and I’m unlikely to begin a life of crime after this particular wakeup call.

I think most of us can draw the line between bald theft of ideas and the presentation of recipes we have tried and wish to discuss/share with our readers. As long as we attribute, link and stick to the basics of the recipes we use, all should be well in intellectual property land.

With that, I remove my (tight and painful) lawyer hat, and return to my kitchen….



About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

7 responses »

  1. Thanks for doing this research, Annie. Remind that if I ever need a lawyer to call you.

    I did a little testing of the system last night. I Googled some well-known chef authors and found their recipes all over the Internet. And I’m not talking personal blogs. I’m referring to sites like allrecipes and recipezaar and I’m not saying that’s right or even fair, but I think if chef authors don’t want their recipes reproduced, they’re going to have to get out of the recipe business.

    I pretty much follow the guidelines you have posted above (except I have “borrowed” a few pics), and in good conscience I just can’t really worry about it.

    What you wrote about Barbara Kafka’s book and recipe should have been considered, by her, a free advertisment. You were doing her a favor, imo. If she really had a problem with it, I think she would have told you. But, maybe you’re right and she was being subtle. I wouldn’t give it another moment’s worry. There are better things to worry about. :o)

  2. Barbara, I’m not licensed to practice in Ohio, but I’d figure out a way to get you represented well. 🙂

    You’re right. I know I overreacted, but I guess the whole issue has nagged at me since I started blogging, and now I can just move on. There are, indeed, better things to worry about starting with getting a 22 pound turkey into a brining bag.

  3. yanno what? i don’t think you actually over reacted. to me, it just felt like you were trying to right a wrong IF you had commited that wrong. i applaud you for that. so many would just shrug their shoulders and that would be that.

    i agree with barbara, you were plugging her book and that’s a good thing. i’m much more likely to buy a cookbook that a “real person” has endorsed!

    have a wonderful thanksgiving!

  4. jayedee, I heart you. You have a great Thanksgiving, too – and according to your plans, you’ll be getting really busy really soon…!

  5. Pingback: Holidailies « Diet, Dessert and Dogs

  6. I think your take home messages are spot on! I’ve recently started blogging about my baking and I’ve been looking for information about recipe copyright – this really hit the spot. I’m planning to adopt your set of rules as my own!

  7. Hilary, thanks! It’s a complicated issue, and I hope the rules I figured out will serve you well. I’ll have to go see what you’re writing about baking….:)


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