Transcript at bottom of page.

I still remember sitting in my "Food Writing" class in undergrad and the professor saying "don't even try to get into the cookbook industry, it is going to a complete dead end". Cookbook sales were plunging at a complete low. Nowadays, people turn to Google for recipes. "Free sites where users can find recipes, such as AllRecipes and FoodNetwork attract more than 20 million unique visitors a month (The Telegraph)". The only reason cookbook sales were up 20% this year, was because of Instapot recipe books (Publishers Weekly).

Even though cooking and passing down food information  has been done arguably since humans evolved, as a book titled Catching Fire by Wrangham claims. "Food writer Laurie Colwin said that if it wasn't for people sharing recipes. mankind would not have survived (Food Blog Alliance).

So can a recipe even be authentic? 

Gemberlain states "cooking is not considered inventing; rather, it evolves. I will have to agree with Gemberlain and say the same about recipes...they evolve and expand into cultures as ingredients get more globalized. Therefore, cookbooks are important because it shows how ingredients travel and recipes evolve. We can't all turn to AllRecipes because then recipes will just be homogenized throughout cultures.

Can recipes be copyright protected?

Copyright law does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients….. Copyright protection may, however, extend to substantial literary expression—a description, explanation, or illustration, for example—that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook. (

According to Hendon, in America, early cases suggested recipes were somewhat copyrightable. But this all changed when Nimmer on Copyright determined that recipes were:
  1. Functional and therefore not original
  2. Found to be a procedure or process,  which are things that don't get copyright protection
This led to the cases of Publications International, Ltd. vs. Meredith Corp (regarding Dannon yogurt recipes) and Lambing vs. Godiva Chocolatier (yes...chocolate recipes) to be disregarded (Hendon).
Since it's not illegal to copy a recipe, can I just do it?

There are two views in this debate: some feel recipes can never be owned and others view recipes as the same as any other intellectual property (Bailey). The chef world is a tight knit community. "Great chefs and cookbook authors have a protocol, an honor system, about using recipes that are not their own (Arnold). Even if there are no copyright protections for recipes, it can still become a huge media scandal costing peoples careers and reputations. For example - accused of plagiarizing on the right:

  • Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, plus vs. Food Network star Anne Thornton (show and contract cancelled)
  • Caroline Dumas vs Danny St. Pierre accused him on live radio (Pierre publicly apologized and credited her on his website)
  • Mimi Sheraton vs. David Ruggerio (Ruggerio's publisher publicly commenting that the book will not be pulled from distribution, but be revised and reprinted)
  • Richard Olney vs. Richard Nelson (settled out of court)
  • Susan Voison blogger vs. e book Vegan Diet: The Art of Living (horrible reviews, reported on Amazon and they discontinued to sell it)
  • Rachel Ray vs. John Mccain's wife (MSNBC news below)

If you want to copy a recipe rightfully, either reach out to the author for permission and attribute. The consensus is as follows:

What about food? Can you patent it?

Patents may be granted for any "new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof". However, to be patentable, an invention must also be "novel" and "non-obvious,"  according to 35 U.S.C. 101, 35 U.S.C. 102 35 U.S.C. 103

Food, being matter, can indeed be patented, but it more so has to do with chemistry. "Numerous patents on food products are issued each year, but you'll find that the recipe was more likely to have been created in a laboratory than on a kitchen counter (Tarazano)." According to UpCounsel, the following are examples of food patents:
  • fat and egg yolk substitute
  • frozen dough that tastes better
  • sealed crustless sandwich
Recipes with known ingredients, on the other hand, are more likely to be trade secrets. Examples of companies with recipe trade secrets include: KFC, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, and Bush's Baked Beans.
If you want to learn more, check out the sources I "adapted/inspired me" from below:
Arnold, M. Plagiarism hard to tell in a recipe. Newsbank: Contra Costa Times. July 19, 2000.
Butler, R. (2006). Social responsibility: Copyright and the cookbook. Knowledge Quest.
Bailey, J. Recipes, copyright and plagiarism. Plagiarism Today. March 24, 2015.
Chadeayne, A. Food Patents: Can I patent a food or recipe? Aug. 25, 2015.
Chefs plagiarism suit against Seinfield dismissed. News bank: World Entertainment News. Sep. 11, 2009.
Copyright Clearance Center. Youtube: Are Recipes Copyright-Protected?
Copyright Law.
Duckofprey. Youtube: Rachel Maddow on Recipe Plagiarism.
Franco, J. How to patent food ideas. Legal zoom.
Food Blog Alliance.
Gemperlein, J. Can a recipe be stolen? The Washington Post. Jan. 4, 2006.
Hendon, L. The definitive guide to recipes and copyright.
McCauley, T. How to share a recipe properly - step by step instructions.
Milliot, J. Cooking and sci-fi are the hot print segments this year so far. Publishers Weekly. July 12, 2018.
Saffron, A. Could this be the death of the cookbook? The Telegraph. June 9, 2015.
Tarazano, L. Can recipes be patentable?
Wikipedia: KFC Original Recipe.
Spreaker Transcript:
What would you do if the Internet shut down and you couldn't Google recipes?  How would you know to cook "authentic" Indian Biryani rice and where would you find recipes?

For history, we learned through our parents/ancestors, community and through written down information...cookbooks.

Hello, my name is Nina and I am a cookbook hoarder (though I must admit, I still turn to online recipes). Hoarding them is okay for me because I feel like they are historical books of culture and cuisine. Even though they can be controversial and colonialist, they are important in ones identity. As we become a world that globalizes food and people more and more, food is a way to maintain connections with our homeland, wherever that may be. For example, my son comes from a Puerto Rican mother and a Polish father. With cookbooks I can show him how to maintain a connection with his ancestor (if he's even interested). Yes, he would be able to easily Google them and maybe by the time he's an adult, have robots that cook for him. But there is nothing more human and universal than cooking/eating and by telling myself that, my cookbook hoarding becomes okay.
The two sites I turned to for this S&R were Google and UAF Library. My searches were "recipe plagiarism" and "recipe copyright". A lot of the articles and their citations led me to more sites to use. I recorded my intro with Spreaker. Sorry for the loud music in the end, couldn't edit it out. Hope you enjoyed!

One thought on “Are Recipes/Cookbooks/Food Copyright Protected?”

  1. My mind still boggles at the decision that recipes are “functional.” Kind of makes one wonder how so many other things are protected by copyright that seem equally functional? That said, I wonder if an unintended effect of recipes being mostly unprotected hasn’t been a boost in the market for more highly crafted “cookbooks” that bring more culture, research, originality, individual perspectives and new takes on the whole idea of a cookbook? It might be coincidence, but it sure seems like the predominance of Betty Crocker style cookbooks, more or less generic, has lessened!

    What I really like is writing that conveys something special about food, whether the meals described in a mystery novel, or food essays or journalism or whatever…finding a recipe is often the last thing I am looking for!

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