Who owns a recipe? A plagiarism claim has cookbook authors asking

Cookbook writers Alan Richardson and Karen Tack saw their signature cupcake recipe used in a women's magazine with no credit given. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In 2011, cookbook editor Rux Martin noticed something unsettling on the cover of a women's magazine: a vanilla cupcake decorated with yellow, cream and white jelly beans arranged to mimic corn kernels, a faux butter slice made from a yellow fruit chew, and black and white sugars to imitate salt and pepper.

The confection looked just like the corn-on-the-cob cupcake in Hello, Cupcake!, a bestselling 2008 cookbook she had edited. Yet the accompanying recipe gave no credit to the authors, Alan Richardson and Karen Tack.

"It was so specific, down to the corncob holders," Tack said. "It wasn't a twist on it. It was just like ours."

Ms Martin wrote to the magazine expressing disappointment but never heard back. She asked a lawyer for her publisher whether they could do anything about the identical feature.

"He said the wording on the method isn't the same, there is no similarity on the headnote - tough luck," said Ms Martin, who is now a freelance editor. "I think that pretty much encompasses the problem in a nutshell."

United States copyright law seeks to protect "original works of authorship" by barring unauthorised copying of all kinds of creative material: sheet music, poetry, architectural works, paintings and even computer software.

But recipes are much harder to protect. This is a reason they frequently reappear, often word for word, in one book or blog after another.

Cookbook writers who believe that their work has been plagiarised have few options beyond confronting the offender or airing their grievances online. "It is more of an ethical issue than it is a legal issue," said Ms Lynn Oberlander, a media lawyer in New York City.

It was noteworthy, then, when in October, the publisher of the cookbook Makan, by prominent British chef Elizabeth Haigh, pulled the book out of circulation, citing "rights issues".

Author Sharon Wee had noticed that Makan, about the cuisine of Haigh's native Singapore, contained recipes and stories nearly identical to ones in her own 2012 cookbook, Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen.

Haigh even replicated some of Wee's personal recollections, in much the same language - material that could be protected by copyright laws in both Britain and the United States.

The news was breathlessly covered online, and readers took to social media to express outrage over Haigh's apparent borrowing from a fellow Singaporean author with a smaller following.

In the publishing world, it is well known and largely accepted that recipes, for the most part, can't be copyrighted. But the Makan incident reinvigorated a debate about recipe ownership, leaving many writers and editors wondering how they can - or even if they should - protect their work in a genre that's all about building on what came before.

Author Sharon Wee accused Elizabeth Haigh, who recently released Makan, of taking her recipes and stories. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

As recipe development became a full-time profession in recent decades, authors started getting litigious about perceived plagiarism. Whatever the merits of those cases, Mr Jonathan Bailey, a copyright expert in New Orleans, said the Internet and self-publishing on platforms like Amazon have made borrowing more common.

"It is easier to find stuff to plagiarise, it is easier to plagiarise and it is easier to publish whatever you plagiarise."

Mr Bailey said many cookbook authors are used to the free exchange of ideas on social media, and may not be conscious of the importance of giving credit.

The law views a recipe merely as a factual list of ingredients and basic steps rather than as creative expression. The introductions, photography and design that accompany a recipe can be covered by a copyright, as can the cookbook as a whole, or a specific sequence of recipes, said Ms Sara Hawkins, a business and intellectual property lawyer in Phoenix.

If the instructions are written with enough literary flourish, she said, they may be sufficiently creative to be copyrightable.

Mr Michael Szczerban, the editorial director of Voracious, an imprint of Little, Brown and Co., said it is not the editor's job to be an authority on the cookbook's subject. Authors are chosen for their expertise and are contractually required to submit original work.

He said placing copyright protections on recipes would harm the genre.

"I think it is a good thing in the world that many people have different ways for making chocolate chip cookies," Mr Szczerban said.

Several cookbook writers said they simply didn't think about copyright protections when writing recipes.

"The purpose of a recipe is for someone else to make it, not for you to have some trademark on it," said Jenne Claiborne, the author of Sweet Potato Soul. Readers tend to step in if they see that a recipe is stolen, Claiborne said. Even if the cookbook stays in print, the offending author's reputation will be damaged.

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