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tinyfaery's avatar

Why aren't recipes protected as intellectual property?

Asked by tinyfaery (36209 points ) July 31st, 2009

I was watching Top Chef Masters and this question popped into my head. Recipes can easily be categorized as intellectual property, but no one goes after people who cook these recipes. I don’t see any difference between a band covering a song and a person cooking a recipe.

Explain please. Are these laws just used to make money, or are we really protecting the ideas and labor that people put into their work? And if the latter is the case, why are songs (as one example) protected, but recipes are not? Or is it something all together different?

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35 Answers

shrubbery's avatar

What is the point of a recipe if no one can use it?

tinyfaery's avatar

What’s the point of a song if no one else can sing it?

shrubbery's avatar

You can listen to a song. And yes, you can taste the food that that one single person has made but if they want to share it and let other people cook it what’s the problem? I’m sure if someone wanted to copyright their recipe they could but obviously chefs aren’t interested in that or there would be more copyrighted recipes? Or why even bother copyrighting it when you can write it down and just keep it to yourself…? A singer could write their song down and keep it to themselves but they want other people to know that they wrote and and for other people to listen to them singing it but with a recipe I mean what would the point be in showing everyone your recipe but not letting them use it? ...I’m sure there’s laws against people taking someone else’s recipe and claiming it as their own but why would you want to stop people using recipes for their own personal enjoyment?

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

cause errrrvraybody deserves tastytrearts

Darwin's avatar

Folks who publish cook books in essence copyright their recipes, but as long as you don’t reprint someone’s recipe and claim it as yours I don’t think there is a problem.

The thing is, using someone’s recipe is rather like reading a book out loud. In order to do that you have to get hold of the book, so someone, somewhere along the line, purchased the book. Thus, the author has been paid for your use of that recipe.

dpworkin's avatar

Recipes by and large are built from a limited repertoire of techniques. Bread is baked, and needs yeast to rise. Meat is seared and then braised, or it is grilled or smoked or stewed. Salads are generally vegetables, with some sort of dressing. Eggs can be poached, scrambled, fried, boiled and what else?

So while ingredients and flavors may change, who can lay claim to “originating” the common techniques?

A song, one hopes, uses a melody not used before, and contains lyrics not heard before.

Zendo's avatar

You cannot really copyright something that anyone could easily cook up on their own…pardon the pun.

buster's avatar

Chefs do sell their recipes to restaurants they work for.

Supacase's avatar

A recipe is just a list of ingredients. It would be like copyrighting someone’s grocery list. The description and directions are what make it more and, in that case, it is protected.

Darwin's avatar

A recipe is not just a list of ingredients. It is a list of ingredients, comparative amounts of said ingredients, and the full process of making the finished dish.

Supacase's avatar

You are right @Darwin; I did not word that well. What I meant to say was the list of ingredients for a recipe is like a grocery list, but the written content (description and directions) do give it protection from plagerism. Unfortunately, it is easy to find that many people find that protection to be of little concern. Just look at any fundraiser cookbook or recipe website with Aunt Jane’s famous cinnamon rolls – probably word for word from a cookbook with no attribution to be found.

From the U.S. Copyright office: Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, when 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.

swuesquire's avatar

This is a very good question. If I can patent a technique for making microchips, why can’t I patent a technique for making chocolate chip cookies? I think part of the issue may be that much of what we have in recipes is received knowledge. French cuisine has been passed down for hundreds of years. If you learn it, you should be making it exactly as the masters of old made it. I guess this would fall under the public domain.

However, there are new, modern, high falutin techniques that are definitely not received knowledge. We have a restuarant here in Chicago that does molecular gastronomy stuff that is extremely original. These things could probably be patented, but what’s the point? It doesn’t really help you to compete better and is difficult and costly to pursue legal action. Better just to keep your secrets to yourself or share them and let the collective body of knowledge grow, hoping to learn something in return.

galileogirl's avatar

Most copyrights only cover commercial use of the material. Amertcan Idol cannot use a song without paying for it but I can stng it in my car anytime I like. I can cook any recipe in a published cookbook but Cindy McCain found that she couldn’t post published recipes as her own (embarrassing) and if someone had copied them directly into their own book for sale- lawsuit.

Most dishes really can’t be copywrited. How could you prove your apple pie is completely unique? With only 3 to 5 ingredients and millions baked every day, for hundreds of years, somebody has already done it.

alive's avatar

gooooooooooood question!!!!!

the only somewhat parallel i can think of is: girl talk(musician) ...

more specifically fair use (i guess this makes the assumption that they are copyrighted in the first place like a cook book)

mattbrowne's avatar

I thought the original coca cola recipe is protected. It’s stored in some safe in Atlanta, isn’t it?

dynamicduo's avatar

@tinyfaery Great question about the relation of music and recipes in terms of legal protection. They do seem alike at first glance, both being expressions of humans that involve a certain sequence of information. But they do have some significant differences.

First off, if we look back at 1900, I would argue that music and recipes were much more legally similar than they are today. There was no RIAA, no digital protection, compilations of songs and recipes were bound up and sold or passed on through families and both items were used in celebrations and social occasions.

The two items are similar. A human will use their experience or collaborate to think up a new creation, food or musical. They will write it down, test it out, make changes, etc. Then the recipe or music could be shared with others, copies sold to restaurant owners or musicians who wanted to learn the song. Or that knowledge could be freely disseminated if that’s what the author wanted. This is very common in bluegrass music nowadays, people learn songs by listening to others play them and playing along, then they in turn teach people (often simply by playing) once they are more experienced in it. I know that much other music was traditionally passed down in similar ways.

But then, I would argue, the advanced parts of world started turning towards earning money. Let’s compare using songs and recipes for making money.

With songs, you can sell the rights or license it out, it is easy to count the number of times the song was played and thus the amount of money to be compensated, you can easily identify if someone has copied your song by using your ears, and it was impossible for a layman to hear the song apart from physically being in the location where the song was playing – they could not make a copy of the song for themselves, there were no common recording devices. Oh, and it required no skills for the commoner to participate in, they simply had to use their ears. Songs mean things to people, we all feel nostalgic when a certain tune is heard, or how about the traditional wedding march song? Songs mean things to people in a way that recipes often do not

With recipes, you can create the recipe then sell it in a book of recipes. There’s not much other market potential for recipes though (no Food network back then, and restaurants hire in-house chefs specifically to make up new and interesting dishes) beyond slapping them in a book, and it’s much harder for a consumer to immediately make a decision about whether to buy the book of recipes or not. Then, how would you identify infringement? It’s trivial for Sue to copy the recipe for her friend Joan and then Joan makes the apple pie and it is consumed by her family. There is simply no ability for some type of recipe copyright patrol to identify the infringed pie and litigate. And then of course, how would you prove the pie was the same? What if Joan put more cinnamon in than the recipe said, did she really infringe on the recipe if she modified it? What if she used recipe x’s crust and recipe y’s filling? Et cetera. Even if you proved she infringed the recipe in making the pie, what are the damages? At max, it would be the cost of the cookbook, at minimum the cost of a pie. Oh, and you would need to be able to read to buy a cookbook, something that is taken for granted nowadays but should be considered in our analysis. And you have to have the skills, a stove, the ingredients, etc.

So the chances for revenue are drastically lower with recipes, the amount of effort in proving the infringement is way too high for the small amount of compensation possible. And cookbooks require additional skills. It’s simply easier to make more money with music than it is to make money with cookbooks.

Most copyright/IP laws stem from what made the most money, because those were the companies who had money to pay lobbyists and bribe people to make these laws happen. No one had any interest in protecting recipes because there was no easy revenue in it.

Nowadays of course everything is totally flipped around, most information is now bits and bytes and a song is no harder to copy than a recipe is. Ultimately, I think the world would (will) be a better place when the RIAA disappears again and people take control over what music they want to hear and produce. People will create and share music for the love of it but also for the money, as an artist selling their own CD/download to you for $10 is way WAY more money they’d ever make than a recording company doing it for them. Then again, more players in the game means it’s harder to get yourself noticed, this is seen nowadays with recipes, can anyone who uses cooking recipe websites tell me the author’s name of a recipe they recently used? I couldn’t. But we all know Julia Child and Gordon Ramsay etc. We are getting to a similar point with music nowadays too.

Wow, that was long, and no references because this is mostly my own thoughts and interpretations of things :)

ShanEnri's avatar

What about similarities? If I write a book and the content is similar to another authors can he sue me for copyright infringement? I would think it would be the same for recipes. Who can prove they were the original creator? Recipes can date back thousands of years, but there is very little one can do to prove that recipe was always in that family unless it’s documented. And doesn’t it have to be patented or copyrighted? I really don’t know enough about the the laws and such on this so, sorry if I got it wrong.

swuesquire's avatar

@mattbrowne I thought the real trick with go is just that the recipe is a closely guarded secret. People have come close to a good imitation, but have never found the real thing. Mmm, coke…

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

My recipes aren’t copyrighted, but just try to get access to one of my prized recipes. I keep them in my head and share them only with a favored few that seem ‘recipe-worthy’. obscure Seinfeld reverence

PandoraBoxx's avatar

You are supposed to credit recipe sources if you publish them, and if you get it from a published source. Any recipe you create on your own that’s published should be credited to you. Some recipes have been around so long that they are public domain.

mattbrowne's avatar

@swuesquire – Yes, it’s amazing that reverse engineering hasn’t led to an identical copy. I mean, we can use spittle for genetic fingerprinting and find a rapist, but a bunch of chemicals in a brown fluid are elusive? Well, some people favor Pepsi anyway. But Coke has nicer bottles. Very appealing to heterosexual men. I heard that’s actually Coke’s real secret: a bottle looking like a woman with perfect proportions.

dpworkin's avatar

There is a story that the shape of the Coke bottle was deliberately related to the shape of the Gibson Girl (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibson_Girl). I hope that’s true.

casheroo's avatar

I have never seen a chef compensated for making a dish, with a specific recipe I can go to multiple restaurant menus, and point out my husbands work, but they still use his recipe.

janbb's avatar

Harp – I’m waiting for you to weigh in on this.

cwilbur's avatar

Recipes are protected as intellectual property. Restaurants treat their recipes as trade secrets, for instance. As a general rule, though, recipes, as descriptions of a process or procedure, fall under patent law and not under copyright law.

tinyfaery's avatar

From my summation of these comments it seems like the only reason that we go after music pirates and not recipe pirates is because it’s too hard to prove recipe infringement, and thus not worth the money to litigate. N’est-ce pas?

swuesquire's avatar

Also, recipes aren’t as interesting to pirate. You still have to do all the skilled work. Recipe pirates are more like music tablature pirates than music recording pirates. Much less popular.

pizzaman's avatar

Because anyone can use them to bake the item provided.

cwilbur's avatar

No, @tinyfaery—music, since it’s an artistic expression that can be put into a tangible form, can be protected by copyrights, which are inherent in the work from the moment it’s first written down or recorded. Recipes, since they’re descriptions of processes or procedures, and since the process or procedure, and not the written expression of it, is the valuable part, are protected by patents, which must be registered at no small expense and defended by lawyers.

derekpaperscissors's avatar

I think it has something to do with who we give merit to when it comes to enjoying these things. When we hear a song, we automatically associate it to the artist, his voice, his musical style and instruments, his emotions and experiences. When we celebrate a really popular technological invention, part of understanding its mechanics, what it does, how it does it, is identifying the inventor as well, his background, history, and how or what inspired him for such a creation.
But with food, association takes place only to the level of taste and taste buds, what ingredients and how it was cooked. Usually we don’t go as far as asking which chef invented this recipe. If ever we just ask who the chef of the restaurant is, we more so associate the chef as a “maker” and not an innovator or inventor. He has used existing techniques and familiar ingredients to come up with this plate. We also imagine there may be other versions of the dish probably in other restaurants or by other chefs.
We can also question the intent of the chef. Although arguably, there is an art involved, a certain expression of oneself, chefs come up with these recipes with the intent of sharing it to others and imitate its creation. He/ She opens up the possibility that there may be better variations of his recipe.

alive's avatar

i have been following this question and i’m still not convinced. i think tinyfaery is right, recipes are intellectual property. the only thing i can think of is that the world of food have developed differently than the world of say music or literature.

for example food network chefs make the big bucks by having cooking shows, while musicians make big bucks by playing live shows.

either way, both things (music and food) are artistic expressions, both take talent, and practice, and both are widely appreciated around the world

beancrisp's avatar

@mattbrowne The reason that coca cola keeps their recipe a secret is because it can not be copyrighted.

MassimoMassa's avatar

I have been working as a Chef for a very prestigious Restaurant in San Francisco, California. I have actually been employed by the Restaurant while I was still in Italy. I moved to USA in San Francisco and worked for few years. The restaurant has become very successful because of my family unusual recepies and the restaurnat now has been quoted as one of the best around. I have been fired, although now I have a wife and a 7 months child. In order for me to move the provide also an apartment and it was convinient to be close by the restaurant and my family. My question is can I file a lawsuit because the restaurant now has stolen my receipes and I consider them as intellectual properties.
I therefore would kindly ask if a case such as this can considered and stolen of intellectual property by the Restaurant Company.
Thank you.
AM

tinyfaery's avatar

You should ask this question to the entire collective.

Nullo's avatar

The Coca-Cola recipe, and the Colonel’s blend of 11 herbs and spices, are both better protected than most banks.

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