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.

Here's the concise version of all you need to know about copyright laws and food writing.

1. 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.

2. 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 own words.

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.

If you write down your recipe then it is protected by copyright laws.

If 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 review.)

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 recipes.

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.

© Pamela White

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pamela White is the author of over 600 published articles, short stories and essays, and publishes "Food Writing" at http://www.food-writing.com and "The Writing Parent" at http://www.thewritingparent.net. She teaches online writing classes at both sites and invites readers to subscribe at the sites.