Recipe ownership and copyright infringements are a hugely relevant topic in the food writing/blogging world and one it is wise for bloggers in particular to keep abreast of. This was brought home to me in a very personal way recently. A few weeks back a comment was left on this post, which I wrote back in September of last year, asking me to remove a recipe which I had included as part of the post. The message was sent from a David Whitehouse, the business manager of Dan Lepard – who wrote the original recipe which had inspired my version. Whitehouse was requesting that I remove my significantly modified and adapted recipe, even though I had clearly credited Lepard as the owner of the original and linked back to the website where I had found the recipe. I won’t go into all the detail, you can follow the trail of comments from me, Whitehouse, two independent intellectual property solicitors (neither of whom was my own solicitor) and the other bloggers who offered their support on the post itself.
This area is a minefield and is constantly being discussed – sometimes heatedly – in the blogosphere, but there are a few things that every responsible blogger needs to know and to be mindful of. Copyright laws vary from country to country and if you are going to post the recipes of others it is your responsibility to make yourself aware of these laws as they pertain to you. Ignorance of the law is no defense if copyright is infringed. Generally speaking, a simple list of ingredients is not subject to copyright – if they were, then a shopping list would fall under copyright and that’s just plain silly. What may fall into the domain of protected intellectual property is the style of writing of the recipe method. It is always advisable to write out the method in your own words, rather than run the risk of infringing copyright by simply cutting and pasting.
Recipe ownership is another matter and where those who modify or adapt an existing recipe may find themselves on sticky moral ground. Neither recipe writers nor cookbook publishers are going to be fond of those who copy whole swathes of a body of work, but most do not mind the offering of a single favoured recipe by a sincere fan. It is best to behave respectfully and politely towards the author of any recipe which has inspired your own amendments of a dish. The passion for food and cooking we all share is generous by it’s very nature and it is unethical to claim ownership for a recipe belonging to another. Those who write recipes for a living are, for the most part, happy to share the food love and appreciate the extra exposure they gain by bloggers giving their ideas a wider audience, but it is simply good manners to always credit your inspiration and link directly back to the source wherever possible. Having said that, there is the odd occasion when a recipe owner does not want to share their work. In this case you will need to rely upon your own conscience and your knowledge of copyright law.
In my case, I had not only credited Dan Lepard and linked back to the source of the recipe (it was actually already published on a publicly accessible website), but I also slightly altered the ingredients and very significantly altered the method to suit the dish being made in a Thermomix, rather than a mixing bowl. This, it seemed, was not enough to satisfy Whitehouse who continued to badger me and suggested that my version of the recipe was derivative of Lepards. It seems to me that most recipes are derivative in their nature, as each individual cook puts their own twist on traditional dishes and I was simply owning my version of a very popular treat. This little fracas caused a minor stir and was written about by several others, including Dianne Jacobs from Will Write For Food, who managed to find a very similar recipe to Lepards which actually predated his by two years.
Some subsequent internet trawling on my part uncovered plenty of other well-meaning and sincere bloggers who had been approached in the same manner by Mr. Whitehouse, most of whom had unnecessarily buckled to his demands, having adequately addressed the legal criteria. I took offense at the suggestion that I had committed an impropriety and took a stand and have heard no more from this man, but his actions have generated a great deal of discussion on food blogging forums and the internet in general, both here in Australia and overseas. I think there are lessons for all of us here. If you care about your integrity and reputation as a food writer, be original where you can and be lawful, responsible and polite when drawing on the inspiration of others. Oh, and remember, jack-booted trampling over the sensitivities of genuine admirers may not be the best way to win fans.