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Vegan-at-Law: Recipes and Copyright Law

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Recipes are very popular this time of year. I would venture to guess that recipe searches online hit an all-time high between Thanksgiving and Christmas. When you use or, more importantly, share a recipe you find online or in a cookbook, do you ever stop to think if you are violating copyright law?

Read these five guidelines about recipes and copyright law to make sure the delicious vegan cookie recipe you just discovered for the annual cookie swap won’t be getting you into legal trouble:

  1. Generally speaking, copyright law DOES NOT protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients and basic directions (i.e. preheat oven to 350 degrees).
  2. Copyright law DOES protect literary expression, such as a description, explanation or illustration, which accompanies a recipe or combination of recipes (i.e. a cookbook). For instance, if you give an introduction to your recipe, that is likely protected by copyright law. If you give detailed reasons within your recipe for using a certain ingredient, that is likely protected by copyright law. And, if you include your own picture with your recipe, that is almost always protected by copyright. Keep in mind that although some recipes are protected by copyright, there is no bright-line test, and courts have decided differently on this issue.
  3. Under copyright law, it is not required that a person publish their recipe with the United States Copyright Office in order for the recipe to receive copyright protection. A recipe that includes more than a mere listing of ingredients and basic directions is protected under copyright law, generally speaking, the moment the recipe is in fixed form (in other words, the recipe is in writing—whether that be on a napkin, on a website, etc.).
  4. If you want to share a recipe that you found online or in a cookbook, give credit to the author of the recipe. Please note that just giving credit to the author of a copyrighted work is not always a complete defense to copyright infringement. However, when it comes to recipes, most chefs, cooks, bakers, and other recipe-creators are happy to have their recipe shared with others, as long as they are properly credited. Whatever you do, do not claim the recipe as your own!
  5. If you change a few ingredients to a recipe, that still does not give you the right to claim the recipe as your own, in most cases. It is best to say your recipe is “adapted from” or “inspired by” the original recipe.

Copyrighting recipes has always been a fuzzy area of the law, but hopefully these guidelines will help you during the holiday season as well as throughout the year.

Have a question for Ashlee? Email her

Disclaimer: Although Ashlee K. Cartwright, Esq. is a licensed attorney, the content contained in this column is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice. Please understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the columnist and/or website publisher. If you have a question about a specific or personal legal matter, please contact a local licensed attorney.

Posted in Advice Columns, Vegan-at-Law

Ashlee is a lawyer and animal advocate. She has been vegan since 2010, and is mom to two little vegan cuties. She and her husband are in the process of starting a microsanctuary for farm animals. Pretty much anything purple makes her happy. You can send her your questions via email and follow her on Twitter.