Recipes and Copyright: How to Stay Out of Trouble


by Corina Koch MacLeod

I’ll admit it. I’ve been know to “cook backwards.” More often than I care to admit, it’s 4:45 and I haven’t even begun to think about dinner. So, rather than consulting a cookbook, I wander to over to the fridge to see what my options are: leftover steak, half a wilted red pepper, a shriveled turnip, a few leaves of lettuce, and … what is that anyway?

I type these ingredients into Google and hope for the best. More often than not, a recipe (or twelve) pops up and many of them are identical. As in word-for-word identical. What’s with that?

As a copyeditor, it’s my job to alert authors to potential copyright issues in their manuscripts. I say potential because while I know enough about copyright to activate my spider senses, I’m not a copyright lawyer. In the end, though, it’s an author’s responsibility to ensure that the content of their book contains original work, and, if they’re using someone else’s work, that they’ve obtained permission to use it. 

As luck would have it, I’m currently editing a book that contains recipes (that’s tonight’s dinner solved if the contents of my fridge cooperates). As a matter of course, I need to check in with the author to see if these recipes are written in her words or someone else’s. I have to ask. Why? Because many people think that recipes are made for sharing (that’s what we do with them, right?), but from a publishing perspective, they shouldn’t show up verbatim in a book that you’re writing because that may not be considered “fair use.”

There are zillions of recipes for banana bread, for example, listing exactly the same ingredients. But what makes a recipe yours is how you “express” that recipe. For example, think of Mollie Katzen with her handwritten typeface, her illustrated ingredients, and her quirky way of doling out procedures and instructions. That’s all Mollie. The actual ingredients? Not so much. I’ll bet she even has a banana bread recipe.

So, if you’re including recipes in a book you’re writing, express them in your own way, using your own words and your own instructions. Don’t lift them word-for-word from a website or a cookbook. If you’re adapting a recipe, say so, and be sure to credit the original source. As a workaround, if you love the manner in which someone has presented a recipe, you can always include a link to that recipe in your ebook, if that recipe lives on the Internet, and if the recipes in your book are meant to be a complement to the topic of your book and not the main dish.

For more information on some of the practices around recipes, have a look at David Lebowitz’s excellent post, Recipe Attribution.

And now to figure out what to make for dinner…

Disclaimer: I’m not a copyright lawyer. Editors simply flag items that might be in violation of copyright. Copyright law is pretty complicated and not entirely accessible, so if you’re not sure about the rules, consider consulting a copyright lawyer.

Image by Phil Roeder

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Further Reading
Can a Recipe Be Stolen? by Joyce Gemperlein