Copying and Copyright in Food Blogging

I was browsing some pages about card-making the other day and it sparked some thoughts on food blogging.  I know, kinda random, right?  Someone had posted a card which they’d made, linking back to the almost identical card which they’d copied.  Now, normally this might have tweaked my plagiarism sensibilities but, in this case, it was ‘ok’ because they were following instructions given on how to make the card – the ‘recipe’ for it had been shared.

You can see where this is headed, right?

I’ve never posted recipes for things I’ve made on this site  and only mention where I’ve considerably changed something.  I link back to the original recipe and have always felt that was what I should do.  In looking at the card maker’s site I realised that I’ve brought certain biases from my background to my blog and let them run around without truly examining the nature of their effects.  It has always me vaguely uncomfortable to see someone repost a recipe and instructions – even in their own words and it’s only when I scrutinise this fact that I realise why I feel that way and, perhaps, why I shouldn’t feel that way.

When I was at University I studied history.  Plagiarism and its effects were usually a core part of most courses’ introductory lessons and plagiarism in even one essay would lead people to lose the ability to finish their degree.  It was harsh, in some ways, but right.  There was no reason not to include other opinions, thoughts and inspiration so long as they were properly credited – copying word for word, though, is plain and simple cheating.   History, in part, relies on making sure you know and include a wide range of opinions of others who’ve written about the same subject as you (historiography) and it is almost necessary to quote, in part, sections of another’s writing.  Claiming another’s original work on your own, though, is illegal and morally wrong.

Another side to my background is that I’m an artist.  I feel awkward saying even that much, because I’m only a dabbler, but I’ve always been part of the community.  Within the online art community plagiarism and copying is a major problem.  Both outright stealing images someone else has done to claim as their own but also copying an image – taking, say, a picture of a cat on a window and copying or tracing the composition but changing the colours and media used.  It’s this last bit which is probably most contentious as whilst people feel their hard work has been violated, the work is derivative and some others feel that most artists find it necessary to copy at some stage whilst learning to get better at certain techniques.  Even amongst that group, though, many don’t believe that ‘copies made for practice’ should be displayed as your own work – especially when you don’t make a reference to the original.

So, food blogging.

My slight squeamishness on posting recipe lists and re-doing instructions comes from my history and art background, where directly derivative / partially copied works are sometimes seen as a form of plagiarism – especially where not credited.   Now, most food bloggers I know credit the original source when re-posting a recipe and use their own words when it comes to describing ‘how to’ – so why do I still feel weirded out by it?  In part, I think, it’s the issue that, unlike other art forms, cooking does not have as strict laws concerning its propagation unlike art and history:

1. The literal text of a recipe is automatically protected by copyright, as are photographs.

2. One can protect the name of a dish, like a brand name, as long as it is not simply descriptive, like ravioli aperti.

3. One can protect (part of) a procedure to prepare foodstuffs, if original, by patenting it. This may be done by industries using special machines, etc.¹

The list of ingredients could be protected by copyright through the surrounding rights that is as a compilation or table. The list will have to conform with the requirements of originality, that is the author or copyright owner must show that she exerted “labour, skill and effort” and that the recipe is not merely: “automatic and only requires painstaking accuracy”. However, the originality criterion would be very difficult to surpass, this is particularly the case in the EU were arguably the standard of originality is much higher than that in the UK.²

So, you can protect your personal text and images but not ingredients lists unless you can really prove there’s a high degree of originality and even then, not likely.

This is where I start to see a big divide, though, between amateur cooks and restaurant chefs – especially those at the ‘forefront’ of food preparation and design.   For one chef to take a recipe from another and present it as their own, especially where there is a great amount of ingenuity and imagination in having created the dish is bad form but it does happen as mentioned in this article where a young chef took very original ideas from those he worked for and directly copied them, profiting from such behaviour in terms of awards and fame.  Not many people would condone that sort of behaviour, but how often do you see other food in restaurants credited to their creators?  Although some original artists will be lost to the sands of time, others are well known but the recipe and techniques associated therewith are considered common property.

There’s a difference, though, between amateurs and chefs or even between innovating chefs and less innovative chefs.  But, mainly, I’m concentrating on the former since that’s where I reside in terms of interest in the subject.  Amateur chefs often have no monetary incentive to keep a recipe to themselves.  There’s the odd person who won’t pass on their amazing apple pie recipe but, for the most part, people love sharing.   Amongst amateurs sharing seems to be seen as the norm – very few people are stingy with their recipes in the online era and, in fact, many people are positively profuse about sharing their recipes.  Innovation comes from the sharing and blending of ideas amongst the community – not from being forced to innovate through necessity to create one’s own version of certain flavours and looks.   The reason the community is so big and flourishing is, in part, because everyone can grab a recipe and do it themselves, then proliferate the recipe via links or word of mouth.

In the end it really comes down to a moral question:  is linking back to a recipe ‘enough’ credit to the person who originally made the recipe.  Often, if I find the right recipe, I don’t go down the link trail right back to the original progenitor.  By posting a recipe, even in my own words, with my own pictures and my own trials and tribulations alongside, would I be affecting how much traffic went to them or, so long as I’m linking back to them, is my link keeping their version higher ranked within the mysterious land of google search?   How different is it from page scraping sites which repost the text of an article?    Some would argue a lot, and certainly there’s more originality involved in writing it ‘in your own words’ but both have the same effect of taking site views away from the original source.

On the other hand – would I be doing a disservice to the ‘consumer’, the person looking for a recipe, by making them wade through six sites just to find the recipe they want?  Is honesty and linking back enough credit for re-doing a recipe?  After all, that person probably based their recipe on a technique or base they learned somewhere else – so where do you stop?  I am beginning to think that it’s not such an odd thing to post ingredient lists and rewritten recipes on your own blog – so long as they are properly and clearly credited – as it widens the range of a recipe, bolsters creativity and increases the shared lot of the ‘community’.  The other point that Andy brought up when I asked his thoughts on the subject was the fact that, unlike printed books, many blogs eventually go down – especially self-hosted ones.  By having the recipes on multiple sites you are preserving these recipes from disappearing entirely or becoming too obscure for casual searches to be able to find them.




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