Zachary Hiller Law. Secret Recipes and copyright law, pecan pie.

Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends to gather and reflect on all their blessings. Well, at least that is what it is in part. It is also a time to eat, and eat, and eat! Candied yams, to deep fried turkey, oyster stuffing and pumpkin pie; Thanksgiving is a great way to expand your culinary skills as well as your waistline. So what recipe is your favorite? Is there a secret family recipe that has been handed down for generations? Maybe you want to hang on to Grandma’s super secret pecan pie recipe? It begs the question; can a recipe be copyrighted?

Secret Recipes and Copyright Protection

It’s a simple question, does grandma’s secret recipes qualify for copyright protections? Or perhaps a more pertinent question in the internet age, does grandma have legal recourse if crazy aunt Bessie puts the recipe on the internet? (There is one in every family.) Secret Recipes and copyright law, pecan pie.

The answer, like most copyright law questions is a little more nuanced. A list of ingredients, even in clearly defined quantities cannot be copyrighted. This ruling was made in 1996 in Publications International Unlimited v. Meredith Corporation. The root of the case argued that the Meredith Corporation substantially copied up to 22 distinct recipes from Publications International Unlimited’s book titled, “Discover Dannon– 50 Fabulous Recipes with Yogurt”  The court of appeals sided with Publication International Unlimited, believing the recipes simply offered a process for combining foods in a way that required very little imagination or expression. They held to the generally accepted standard that recipes are considered to be a functional process and therefore, do not qualify for copyright protection.

That is not to say that people have free reign to copy recipes and share or post them as their own without any liability. While the listing of ingredients and even some directions for assembling may be considered a process, recipes that offer a significant amount of creative expression may have those creative portions qualify for copyright protection. The process itself isn’t protected, but the words used to describe the process may be.

For example, if grandma’s recipe writing boarders on poetic prose as she instructs, the recipe may qualify for a copyright. So, instead of saying whip the eggs until foamy she elaborates with something more grandiose then the text may be copyright-able. Something on par with, beat the eggs until they are reminiscent of the sea foam gently lapping on the Mediterranean shore… well then, in addition to missing her calling as a romance writer, grandma’s recipe may fall under some copyright protection, as it was written. Aunt Bessie could face some consequences if she were to post an identical recipe to grandma’s lyrical love song to her pecan pastry. (Other than a really awkward Thanksgiving meal.)

All kidding aside, when a recipe offers a distinct creative aspect, be it in the text or in the form of a picture or illustration then those distinct aspects may be subject to copyright protections. Recipes offered in a cookbook are subject to copyright protection, as they are written as are the photos therein. The core aspects of the recipe, however, may still be open to public use. Should Aunt Bessie opt to recreate the recipe using the exact same ingredients but skip the flowery directions in favor of a more straightforward guide, she may be in the clear.

Sharing recipes on public sites can be a slippery slope, so it is always a best practice to give citation credit where credit is due.  And when it comes to secret recipes passed down from generation to generation… it may be best to keep those in the family. Especially if you still want a slice of grandma’s pecan pie on thanksgiving.

Wishing you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving from the Zachary Hiller Law Office.

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