Cooking up a recipe-wiki
December 17, 2007 5:21 PM   Subscribe

Some friends and I are putting recipes on our website for easy reference, and for comparative analysis of different recipes for the product. As far as I can tell, ingredient lists can't be copyrighted. But how much do we need to change/reword the instructions to preempt letters from lawyers?
posted by jytsai to Law & Government (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ingredient lists in recipes can be copyrighted. The chocolate chip cookie recipe on the back of Nestles chocolate chip packages is copyrighted by Nestle, and if you post it and they find out, you'll hear from them. (They themselves purchased the copyright from Ruth Graves Wakefield, in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate chips.)

When Alton Brown did a "Good Eats" episode about chocolate chip cookies, he himself mentions that recipe and says it's a good one, but also says that the lawyers wouldn't let him read it on the air. The three recipes he does provide are all variants on the original recipe, and apparently are enough different so that they don't represent "derivative works" under copyright law.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:29 PM on December 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

US Copyright Office on Recipes

According to them, you're in the clear. That wouldn't stop someone from suing you, although it's not likely.
posted by adamrice at 5:33 PM on December 17, 2007

I have read it is rare for a recipe to be patented but it is possible.
IANAL, but simply stating facts (or ingredients) seems to be pretty safe ground but I wouldn't reference specific brands as they can be protected under trademarks. Ever thought about giving credit to where you find the recipe?
posted by priested at 5:39 PM on December 17, 2007

My understanding is that a list of ingredients and quantities is not copyrightable, whatever Nestle's lawyers might say. It's still relatively easy for them to bust someone for infringement, because any accompanying descriptive text, additional explanation, etc. is copyrightable, and it's nearly impossible not to slip some of that in.

Also, Nestle's got enforceable trademarks on all kinds of things about that recipe, and also, the foremost consideration of U.S. copyright infringement cases is always the effect of the infringement on the market. If Alton Brown read that thing on the air, he could arguably pre-empt quite a lot of people's buying the packet of chocolate chips, and he's a visible target and obviously has a substantial income to pay damages out of, so he has to be very very careful. You are in less danger.

If you're writing your own copyrightable remarks on the recipe from scratch, instead of adapting someone else's, I reckon you're safe. To prove that that's what you're up to, have one person copy out the generic, noncopyrightable parts of the recipe and hand that to someone else who has never seen the original to post.

IANAL, but I keep a small publicly-viewable recipe wiki and have brushed up on copyright law.

On preview, adamrice FTW. And I suppose a recipe could be the object of a method patent, but that'd be a whole lot of trouble for a few years' exploitation. You wanna protect a recipe, that's what trade secrets are for, in which case you don't put out a cookbook.
posted by eritain at 5:48 PM on December 17, 2007

The soft batch cookie patent was litigated to the tune of many, many millions of dollars. Most recipes are not patented, or probably even patentable, but some are. Copyright laws can be powerful, especially combined with the DMCA. I would sit with a copyright attorney prior to exposing yourself, especially if you plan to make any money off of the website.
posted by caddis at 5:57 PM on December 17, 2007

Adam Rice's link is a good one, but I'd like to add one point: it describes how to register a copyright. The original publisher of a recipe can do that, but they don't need to in order to have a copyright. Under the Berne Convention, copyright is automatic unless explicitly waived. Registration is not necessary.

So you should assume that all recipes you find anywhere are under copyright unless you explicitly know otherwise.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:04 PM on December 17, 2007

Oh, and I stand corrected. I misunderstood Alton Brown's reasons.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:05 PM on December 17, 2007

If it's just for you and some friends, why not put it behind some authentication?
posted by duckstab at 6:10 PM on December 17, 2007

While it's nice to be safe, you aren't going to get any letters from lawyers. Once Upon A Time I ran a good-sized recipe site, and maybe a hundred or two of the recipes were my roommate copying them from the internet or backs of food containers. Never heard a litigious peep out of anyone.
posted by soma lkzx at 6:17 PM on December 17, 2007

I think the safe bet would be to completely rewrite any narrative text (the procedural instructions), making sure to never use more than a few words the same as the original. I'd re-order all the ingredient lists as well.

The recipe, that is, the actual composition of the food, can't be copyrighted -- but the explanation of how to create it can, and the actual placement of the text on the page can. I'm not sure how "granular" copyright is (whether it descends to the level of individual phrases), but I'd err on the side of caution and try to rewrite everything into your own words whenever possible.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:21 PM on December 17, 2007

Speaking as a food writer who creates and publishes recipes, please do not copy and paste recipe word-for-word on your site. Here is what the U.S. Copyright Office has to say about copyrighting recipes:

"A mere listing of ingredients is not protected under copyright law.
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 collection of recipes as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection. Note that if you have secret ingredients to a recipe that you do not wish to be revealed, you should not submit your recipe for registration, because applications and deposit copies are public records."

My reading of this is that you can reproduce the ingredients, but the "creative expression," ie the directions, can be copyrighted. Making up recipes and writing them down is how I make my living, and when I find people who have copied the recipes verbatim, I first send a semi-nasty note, and then I have the lawyers of my parent company send a very nasty letter. I know it seems like overkill, but like I said--it's how I earn my living, and I have to protect it.

So to answer your question--ingredients are okay, you should put the procedure in your own words.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 8:38 PM on December 17, 2007

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