copyright recipes

It’s so easy to get a recipe online these days, isn’t it? Whether you’re looking for a new way to make guacamole or double-checking the grilling instructions for those pork steaks, all you have to do is check YouTube or Google.

Well, it turns out that even cooking show giants like the Food Network do online research, too, because they’re currently in trouble for ripping off a popular food blogger. According to a recent lawsuit, the Food Network not only stole a recipe from Elizabeth LaBau of SugarHero.com, they remade a video showing how to make her dish.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the recipe per se that got the Food Network in hot water; it was the video! That’s because, while a recipe isn’t protected under copyright law, an “illustration” of a recipe can be. So, when Food Network copied the camera angles, lighting, and text of LaBau’s video, shot-by-shot, they messed up.  

So how does copyright law work when it comes to recipes, particularly those ubiquitous online tips and tricks? You may be surprised to learn that it is not possible to copyright recipes. However, there are steps you can take to legally protect your creative kitchen ideas.  

Sorry, Home Chefs. Your Favorite Recipes Belong to Everyone.

Copyright laws generally protect the creators of original works. These might include literary masterpieces or musical scores – anything that is an original piece of art. Because a recipe is simply a list of ingredients, however, it’s not eligible for copyright protection.

The exception to this rule is when a recipe is accompanied by an originally-crafted explanation or set of directions. In other words, if you write detailed text laying out for the reader or viewer exactly how a delicious dish is made, and if your text has some literary or creative merit, then you can claim ownership and copyright that work of culinary art. For this reason, cookbooks and, yes, online video tutorials can be protected.

Because copyright laws protecting your kitchen creations are limited, it might be worthwhile to consider other options …

Consider Using a Patent to Capture Your Cooking Ideas.

Few homegrown chefs think about how patents can protect their culinary feats. Patents generally protect inventions that solve a particular technical problem. If a recipe or cooking process meets this requirement, it’s worth considering. An example is that peanut butter and jelly that comes in a single jar – great solution, right? – or a cake that can be cooked in a microwave.

Keep in mind that the invention must be brand new, and the patent must be filed as soon as possible: The first person who files – not invents – gets the patent. Some of the world’s more inventive top chefs file patent applications for avant-garde culinary wonders like cotton-candy paper. If you’ve got an inventive recipe or original cooking idea, get a jump on that patent process before anyone else does.

Trade Secrets: Another Legal Protection to Consider for Your Original Idea.

Rather than registering a recipe or cooking process, chefs may decide to keep it a secret. This trade secret is something that only the creator or owner knows about, such as the recipes for Coca Cola or KFC chicken. This gives the creator an edge over the competition, as long as the formula remains a secret! If you steal a trade secret? You could be severely penalized under U.S. law.

Traditionally, chefs have begged, borrowed, and stolen one another’s ideas — sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes with a little snarky animosity. But that may be changing. Some believe that chefs should own their creations in the same way that companies own their logos or rock stars own their riffs. Until then, however, that sangria recipe that wowed your guests last weekend is fair game.

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