We received an inquiry this week from Mara Ruffino, who asks about copyrights and creating cookbooks. My answer is worth sharing with all of you since last month there was quite an online controversy between a blog and a food website that alleged one of its copyrighted recipes was being compromised. Here is Mara’s question:
I am thinking about writing a cookbook and eventually publish it (not just in the family). I have been collecting recipes for a long time; some of them are my own and some of them “have no author,” meaning that I don’t know where I got them from. Therefore, I’m left wondering: how do copyrights work with cookbook recipes?
Great question, Mara! While all of us here at The Cookbook People don’t profess to be legal experts, generally speaking, individual recipes are not typically considered creative works and are not usually protected under copyright law.
However, if you put recipes into a cookbook collection with narrative and photos that are unique to your own life, that distinctive cookbook collection would be considered a creative work and could be copyrighted as a whole.
Here is a link to the U.S. Copyright Office that explains the concept of recipe copyright more fully: recipe copyright.
If some of your collected recipes are not identifiable or come from other cookbooks, and you still want to include them in your own family cookbook, here are a few suggestions to keep you honest and avoid that dreaded P word: plagiarism.
Reproducing recipes from a known cookbook or website:
If you use an exact recipe verbatim, you should give full credit to the cookbook, website or newspaper from which it originated, with specific dates of publication, if possible. If you plan to sell the cookbook for profit or even as a fundraiser, make every effort to get permission to reprint the recipe directly from the publisher/owner. This is called “CYA.”
What if you alter the recipe? Changing a few ingredients here and there to your own tastes essentially changes any printed recipe and creates a new one. But you should always give credit to the source of the new recipe by adding a footnote such as “Inspired by a recipe in Southern Living magazine, 1978,” for example. Part of the joy of developing new recipe ideas is the ability to share them so others can try and enjoy them.
Reproducing recipes from an unidentifiable old clipping:
When you do not know where the recipe came from, adding a simple “Original Source Unknown” as a footnote to the recipe indicates that it came from elsewhere, and that you truthfully do not claim ownership of it (but you do use and enjoy it).
You might check the local newspaper to see if there are similar recipes in their food section database. Often collectors clip recipes from the local newspaper, not paying attention to keep the date or publication name intact with the clipping.
Reproducing hand-written recipes from family members:
Again, assuming you have permission to reprint the family recipes (because everyone knows you are creating a family cookbook and have agreed to help), the best thing to do is to give credit to the family member and add a date on the bottom of the recipe, such as circa 1940. If at all possible, at the end of every original family recipe, insert a copyright symbol and date (© 1940) if you want to claim ownership of the family recipe.
To publish for profit, formally copyright your cookbook:
When you create a cookbook of your own for personal use, it is automatically copyrighted and you do not have to apply for a copyright from the U.S. Copyright Office. But if you want to protect your cookbook as your intellectual property so that others cannot profit from it, you must have your cookbook copyrighted. It is proof in a court of law that you are the creator of the cookbook.
As always, Mara, when in doubt, find a legal expert to help and advise you.
Happy cookbook making.