Most would agree that one of the best parts of the holiday season is the food. And when we eat something tasty at someone’s house, lots of us just have to ask for the recipe. Some events are even designed with this expectation in mind—think holiday cookie swaps, for instance, where everyone brings cookies to share and copies of the recipes to pass out.
But did you know that recipes are copyrighted? And that the gingerbread recipe you hand out as your own might actually belong to someone else?
How US copyright law applies to recipes
Anytime anyone writes something, they own the copyright as soon as they put the words on the paper (and no, you don’t have to use that little © symbol anywhere on the page). But in order to enforce this right, the owner has to file for the copyright and pay a filing fee with the Library of Congress. If you don’t file, you still own the copyright, you just can’t enforce it.
That being said, the law about recipe copyright is rather quirky. The only part of a recipe that definitely can be copyrighted is the instructions. According to the US Copyright Office, the instructions can have a copyright if they are original and are a substantial literary expression, such as a description, explanation, or illustration. This means that the list of ingredients and bare bones kinds of instructions (like “beat the eggs”) can’t be copyrighted. However, anything that adds some kind of expression to the instructions could be; for example: “Beat the egg whites briskly until they stiffen into snow-capped peaks. Create an avalanche, and you’ve overdone it,” would likely do the trick.
In addition, an entire cookbook can be copyrighted, but there would still be no copyright protection for the individual recipes except as explained above. But, hey, you didn’t plan on passing out photocopies of the entire Joy of Cooking, did you?
When is a recipe truly your own?
We all have recipes we think of as our own. If you’ve been making the same sugar cookie recipe for 20 years, it’s part of your traditions and your family’s history. And while it’s fine to share recipes with family and friends, it is a good idea to list where it came from, so the person who created it gets some credit. So if you’re putting together a family cookbook, as lots of folks are doing these days (tip: this makes a great gift!) or posting recipes on your personal blog, you can include that cookie recipe you ripped out of a magazine years ago—just state where it came from.
Often we tweak our favorite recipes (substituting walnuts for pecans, adding raisins, etc), making them even more personal. The Food Blog Alliance offers guidelines for how to attribute such recipes. If you’ve made a small change, then say the recipe is “adapted from” wherever you got it. If you’ve totally overhauled it, it’s considered appropriate to say that the recipe is “inspired by” the original source.
If you have no idea where the recipe came from (Aunt Judy copied it onto an index card for you 15 years ago), don’t sweat it. No one is going to hunt you down and sue you for sharing it. The truth is, all recipes are somehow connected to other recipes. There’s no dish that isn’t similar to something that someone else has already made. But when you know the source of the recipe you’re following or adapting, give the originator their props. It’s a nice way to spread holiday cheer.
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