As editor of an
ezine, "Food Writing," I received a nice email a while back that included a
question about writing recipes and copyright protection. This topic causes
confusion about writers, and food writers, in particular.
concise version of all you need to know about copyright laws and food writing.
U.S. copyright laws protect intellectual property with the
purpose of encouraging artistic endeavor. Any original work is protected by
copyright laws as soon as it is written or recorded. You don't have to do
anything to protect your original work but you may want to register it with the
U.S. Copyright office. This is the only way you will be able to go to court for
compensation if your work is used or stolen without your permission.
Copyright laws do not protect lists however, so your recipe's
list of ingredients is not protected. 3.
The rest of the recipe
you have developed and written down is copyrighted. This includes your
directions, cooking tips, and personal preferences as you write them in your
If you have an idea and tell someone about it, and that
person writes it down and has it published, you are out of luck.
you write down your recipe then it is protected by copyright laws.
you take the list of ingredients (say for egg and olive salad) and write up, in
your own words, how to make it, then, by law, you have an original recipe.
I do recommend that if you are inspired to create a recipe based on a
restaurant's signature dish or a recipe from a beloved cookbook, give credit to
the source in a way that fits in with your recipe: "Last summer, I was so
inspired by the white chocolate cake at The Lemongrass that I created a
low-fat, vegan version for my friends."
If you are publishing a
newsletter, website or cookbook and want to use someone else's recipe, get
permission. Write to the cookbook's publisher and include the cookbook's
information, the recipe and page it's on, and in what context you will be using
the recipe. You may be given permission to use it, or charged a fee. You may be
denied permission. (If you are reviewing a cookbook, the author or publisher
probably included a letter allowing you to include several recipes in your
Do not write for a website or publication whose editor
exhorts you to "just take recipes from cookbooks and reword them a little." I
was offered a job doing that very thing for a site that needed recipes. They
claimed that if you change a few words in the directions, "we can't get into
trouble." Personally, I wouldn't write for someone who thinks narrowly avoiding
being sued for copyright infringement is a strategy for business success.
To recap: your list of ingredients cannot be copyrighted. The directions
and other information can. Practically speaking, this allows every food writer
in the world to publish traditional recipes, home cooking favorites and simple
Ideas cannot be copyrighted but works that are in a
publishable format (written, recorded) are protected by copyright laws as soon
as they are put in that format.
I have also had writers take issue
with my writing on copyrights and recipes, stating that they are compiling
recipes, clipped from magazines, for publishing in cookbooks. I know that a
traditional publisher would never allow that, unless all permissions are in
order. However, the ease of self-publishing today allows writers to often
mistakenly take the step of violating a magazine's or author's rights. The
unpleasant result could include being sued for damages, a thing most writers
cannot handle professionally or financially.
When in doubt, do some
more research on rights, and visit: www.copyright.gov.
White ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pamela White is the author of over
600 published articles, short stories and essays, and publishes "Food Writing"
and "The Writing Parent" at
. She teaches online writing
classes at both sites and invites readers to subscribe at the sites.