Are Recipes Copyrightable?

Today’s publishing legal question is particularly relevant with the holidays approaching:

“Are recipes subject to copyright?”

The short answer is: no … and a little bit yes. 

Copyright exists to protect creative expression, and does not offer protection for “functional items.” To the extent a recipe consists of a list of ingredients required to create a type of food, it’s functional–and not copyrightable. The functional elements of recipes, like ingredient lists and basic instructions, can’t be copyrighted.

For our purposes, a “functional item” is any part of the recipe that’s mandatory to create the food itself. For example, yeast in a risen bread.

Courts have ruled that ingredient lists – even for unusual recipes – are merely a “statement of facts,” & not copyrightable. Courts have also ruled that the factual parts of the recipe’s directions (the instructions themselves) are not copyrightable.

However, the creative portions of recipes – the way  the instructions are given or any “tips and hints” included with the recipe – may be copyrightable. In other words: you probably can’t just reproduce a creatively-worded recipe verbatim and call it your own. However, if you do re-post a recipe you love to make, in your own words, you probably haven’t infringed copyright.

When dealing with recipes, it’s probably fair to consider the ingredient list and basic instructions “not in copyright” but to treat any other “bells and whistles” (e.g., decorating tips for cupcakes, or serving hints, or storage tips) as copyrighted information.

Photographs that accompany recipes ARE subject to copyright – so don’t steal them. Take your own.

When sharing recipes, ethics are also important. It may be “legal” to lift a recipe without changing it and call it your own, but it’s not very nice. If you love a recipe someone else created, it’s better to share your experiences, and photo, and attribute and link to the source if you can. You could also share the ingredient list and “functional” directions, and then link to the source for tips and creative content. If there is no link to the recipe, go ahead and share it and simply attribute the source. Cooks appreciate the attribution.

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To sum up:

— Functional aspects of recipes can’t be copyrighted, but there’s limited copyright on the truly creative hints & tips.

— Ethically, you’re better off attributing the recipe to its originator unless you’ve changed at least three or four things.

— Don’t use someone else’s photos without a license.

— Writing instructions in your own words, and eliminating the “creative content” generally means you’re reproducing only the “functional parts” of the recipe.

— Remember that chefs work hard to create new recipes, and it’s polite to credit the source if you’re copying a recipe.

Have questions about this or other publishing and copyright topics? Feel free to ask in the comments or email me through the website (there’s a link in the sidebar). I keep questioners’ names anonymous, so ask anything you like!