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Recipe Ownership

A co-worker gave me a cookie recipe a few years back. I gave it to a friend. That friend over the last few years altered it slightly. They changed the quantity of two ingredients enough to give the cookie a bit of a different texture and shape. They entered said cookie into a contest and won and is taking credit. Ok foodie friends, have at it.

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  1. Just my .02 cents, considering it is a cookie recipe, most of which are basically the same idea. And considering the fact that they DID make some alterations that you say changed the "texture and shape" I think it is fair for them to take credit as you put it. Not sure of all the surrounding circumstances, but If possible it would be nice if they gave some credit to the original recipe owner.
    Personally, I don't think I would have entered a contest with a recipe I know I basically got from someone else, but who knows how long the 2nd person, played with and tweaked the recipe.

    1 Reply
    1. re: SweetPea914

      If the second person "changed the quantity of two ingredients enough to give the cookie a bit of a different texture and shape" then it is now THEIR recipe. Is the original source for the recipe complaining?

      One cannot "copyright" a recipe. I learned this a few years ago while helping someone write and edit a cookbook.

    2. I seem to recall that recipes cannot be copyrighted and of course that statement requires some explaining. You cannot copyright the ingredients,but you can the preparation information ie;"2 fresh eggs,furiously beat the farm fresh eggs into a whirling lather of whiteness". OK I am not a writer. But my take is 2 eggs cannot be protected,but the prep info is copyrighted. Those that know...am I close? As far as credit goes,if the results are different from the original then it is kind of a new recipe.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Sam at Novas

        Ugh. A sticky ethics issue, more suited for a board game than real life.

        Personally? I would be PO'ed if I were the owner of the original recipe.

        1. re: Sam at Novas

          That's my understanding too -- the ingredients list cannot be copyrighted but the technique can be. That's why you'll often see "adapted from ..." in, say, the NY Times when they run recipes. (Friends and I were going to put together a cookbook and we looked up this information too.)

          Also, to address dolores's point above, if the person used the "adapted from" formulation, perhaps the original recipe holder wouldn't be mad?

          1. re: LNG212

            I believe that in most cases the NY Times "adapts" a recipe to make the description conform to house style or to make a restaurant's recipe something that will be usable by a home cook.. I suspect in most (if not all), the Times is running the recipe with the knowledge and approval of the "originator."

            Sam was right about copyrighting the prep information ... but all you can copyright is the way it is written up. You cannot copyright the technique itself ... you would have to try to patent the actual technique used in the preparation of a dish. I would imagine that if such a patent were issued it would be very difficult to enforce if the recipe were later published.

            1. re: LNG212

              Good to know, since I seldom use a recipe verbatum. I've always shied from claiming total ownership (if someone asks).

          2. Well, in my mind the ethics of the situation depend on quite a few things:
            How significant were the changes? You say the cookie has a different texture and shape. Shape wouldn't be enough change for me to consider it a different recipe, but texture is huge. How simple was the recipe to begin with? If it's a butter/sugar/flour shortbread and she changed the proportions, the cookie is hers - there's only so many things one can do to a shortbread. But if the cookie is a molasses-chocolate cookie with rum-soaked raisins and a chocolate glaze, and what the second cookie-maker did was add an extra 1/4 cup cocoa and an extra egg, then s/he should have referenced the original cookie-maker. Also, where did the original cookie-maker get the recipe? From a grandparent or from Joy of Cooking?

            The simpler the original cookie, the less offended I would be, since small changes mean a lot. I would also be far less offended if the cookie was one I just made a lot and not a recipe I had actually developed on my own.But I probably wouldn't be too bothered anyway - there's only so much variation possible in cooking, a truly original dish is a rare thing indeed. And if the recipe is good, getting some attention for it means more good food in the world, a happy thing for all.

            1 Reply
            1. re: curiousbaker

              Good points, curiousbaker and LNG212, but it's just not something I would personally do.

              Interestingly, if I shared a recipe of mine on the internet and someone took it and won a prize, I couldn't feel badly, could I? I guess it's a matter of caveat recipe owner. Something I had never thought about before.

              Another case in point, a friend gave me a cookie recipe which was different and good. I would never have dreamed of entering her cookie recipe as my own, no matter what changes I made. Now, however, I would even have to think twice about posting it on the internet.

              Brave new world.

            2. Was it a recipe contest, or a cooking contest?

              If it was a recipe contest, no ... They should not have entered someone else's creation as their own recipe.

              If it were a contest where you demonstrate your cooking skills, I do not see why not.

              5 Replies
              1. re: foodmonk

                Yes, it's not just about the recipe, but the skill of the cook, and perhaps a bit of luck too1

                1. re: foodmonk

                  I'll elaborate on foodmonk's question further. Was this a national/regional contest with formal, written rules or was this an informal office contest or the like? Also, was this recipe published anywhere prior to your friend receiving it?

                  The norm in the recipe contest world is first off, read the rules. They're generally very specific about what they consider original or even if the recipe must be original. The rule of thumb is that for a recipe to be considered original it must have at least 4 significant changes from the source recipe. Significant does not mean using 3/4 tsp, cinnamon instead of 1 tsp. cinnamon. Significant would mean the original cookie was chocolate flavored and the new one is banana caramel flavored.

                  Then, was your recipe published anywhere in a book, magazine, website, etc.? If yes, then the new recipe should have been disqualified. If it was a hand-me-down family recipe never printed anywhere before then your friend may not be playing very nice but is not violating any rules.

                  1. re: rockycat

                    rockycat, just a heads-up that those comments are 3 years old :)

                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                      Granted, but all still true. There's a lot of disagreement about what constitutes an "original" recipe and, if anything, the confusion gets worse as the internet replaces print media. The definition of original seems to depend largely on the context.

                      1. re: rockycat

                        oh i agree completely, i just wanted to make sure you knew that your reply to that particular comment might never be seen by the poster :)

                        the issue is actually one that i struggle with here on CH - many Hounds know about my as-yet-unrealized catering/restaurant/cookbook dreams, and i've actually been asked several times why, in light of that, i would give away my recipes for free.

                2. The co-worker "gave" you the recipe. Unless stipulated otherwise, it is now yours to do with as you please, including giving it to a friend, thus making the recipe theirs as well. I say too bad so sad, both legally and ethically (not that I'm an expert on either of those things...)

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: mercyteapot

                    But given that, now I'd think twice about giving out a special 'family' recipe for example.

                    I thought of something while reading this -- at a work Christmas party years ago, one of the employees brought in a baklava that was very good. When I asked her for the recipe, she said to me 'oh no, I can't give it to you, I'm going to sell my pastry'.

                    So again, unless I can point someone to a website from where I've gotten a recipe, SeattleJim has given me something to think about.

                    1. re: dolores

                      Yes, it does make one understand a little more why some people don't want to share recipes. Unfortunately, there's been no special award winning recipe passed down on either side of my family, or in dh's either, so I've not been faced with that dilemma.

                  2. "over the last few years", "changed slightly", and the kicker "changed the quantity of two ingredients enough to give the cookie a bit of a different texture"

                    sounds to jfood that changing the recipe altered the finished product and no modifier, "slightly"and "a bit" changes the fact that it did change the recipe and the finished product. For example, a simple salmon in a white wine sauce with mushrooms is changed to a barolo wine instead of white. A simple change so it seems but a totally different finished product.

                    And add to this one, this recipe you passed on was not even yours, but a co-worker's. When you passed it on did you mention that the recipe was not yours, but a co-worker's? just curious on the total disclosure aspect of the recipe lineage.

                    But how would you feel if the winner placed an "adapted from a recipe created by SeattleJim" and then you needed to face the music wth your co-worker for not given her credit for the recipe that you merely passed on, which she probably received from someone else...on and on

                    The winner found a change that made the cookie better and won. more power to her.

                    BTW - have you asked her for the improved recipe toplace in you collection and can you share with us?


                    1. Funny enough, all men in this cookie comedy.
                      It was a cookie recipe contest, not cooking contest.
                      The winner did credit me and offered to share a small portion of the prize.
                      The winning improved recipe was posted online.
                      None of the procedures were changed.
                      When after the fact I looked up the lineage online I found it was a long one and, a previous iteration won prizes.

                      2 Replies
                        1. re: SeattleJim

                          Well, Jim, you did say it is 'improved'. Still, I get upset to share a recipe for which I am well known, then find it served back to me as someone else's, or served where I usually bring it.
                          Anyway, my peeve is when there is no credit, or like in the case of DGreenspan, she renames the recipe!! 'Korova' cookies is a perfectly good name, christened by The Inventor; it doesn't taste any better with the new name.( Might sell more books, maybe..)

                        2. There is nothing proprietary about a recipe in the public domain. The same is true for many if not most types of legal documents. Numerous times I have seen contract language submitted to me by adversarial counsel that included language I recognized as my own handiwork from earlier efforts. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" is a cutesy catch phrase, but there's a stinging truth to it that you and your co-worker have to get past.

                            1. re: SeattleJim

                              ooohhh if I wasn't watching what I eat these days I'd be making them tonight. Thanks for sharing!

                              1. re: SeattleJim

                                Is it just me, or does that link not work?

                                It's just taking me to the ivillage homepage.

                                1. re: Azizeh

                                  That post is three years old - likely the page has gone away in that time.

                                  EDIT: New page for that link is: http://www.ivillage.com/jimmy-toons-m...

                              2. I either print recipes off the Internet, or copy them onto index cards. The printed ones have the source info on them, but my cards don't. I certainly couldn't tell you where most of "my" oldest recipes originated; some of them were my mother's, but God knows where she got them.

                                1. My feeling is this...they should not have given the recipe to anyone if they are going to be angry when someone else capitalizes on it. Recipes are meant to be shared-for those who have the time, they may write cookbooks and make money off recipes that lots of people can claim as their own or in your case, they had the nerve to enter it into a contest. I personally would not have done such a thing w/o giving the proper credit as suggested -"adapted from.." But, if you snooze you loose....now I'm going to make those cookies!

                                  1. you might be interested in this paper:

                                    btw, if you search for "copyright Recipe" here on CH, there are a few
                                    threads on various IP issues in the food space [recipies, resto design,
                                    trade secret analysis etc].

                                    ok tnx.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: psb

                                      great article that i started to read and will do so in more depth when the time allows. i think the major difference between the social-norms IP protection and law-norms IP protection is that under the former, once broken the ostracized party can continue to exploit without compensation to the injured party, in this case the inventive chef. So if Jean Claude steals Francoise croissant secret and reproduces, then Francoise can black-ball Jean Claude, and Jean Claude can publish the recipe in La Monde with no repercussions. Under law-norms, Francoise can sue or have a court issue a stay to protect the second tier violation.


                                      But great article from first glance. Keep those cards and letters coming.

                                    2. SeattleJim, your post reminded me of this thread: http://www.chow.com/stories/10564

                                      The reply of the owner of Ed's Lobster Bar on the difference in his Caesar salad is disingenuous.

                                      What about Nobu's famous black cod w/miso--much admired and copied--to the point where it's almost become trite, IMO.

                                      1. Did they win for having the best cookie or for having the best recipe? If "best cookie" they could get a recipe from anywhere and use best ingredients and best cookie-maker skills to make the "best cookie." If best recipe, I think it would be really hard to claim a recipe with all the recipes available on the net. I'll bet if you were diligent in your search, you could find both the version your co-worker gave you and the version your friends used posted somewhere.

                                        1. If you want to copyright and protect something you wrote, don't you need to put a name, date and copyright mark on it???

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: scuzzo

                                            You don't need all that anymore. The creator has, if a work is copyrightable in the first place, a copyright in the work the instant it becomes "fixed in a tangible means of expression." Most of the conventions like dates and marks were done away with in about 1976. One may fix a copyright notice for ease of litigation (if it comes to that) and to receive certain statutory damages after litigation.

                                            You can't copyright recipes. This only makes sense b/c most recipes are not original works in the first place. Also, it would make no sense to not allow people to cook certain recipes b/c of someone's ownership.

                                            This doesn't mean that you can just copy a cookbook and resell it as your own. An author might have a copyright in the actual arrangement of a collection of recipes or may even have a copyright in the actual wording of a recipe.

                                            There are other protections available for chefs/restaurants, too: One may have a trademark interest in the way something is prepared or the style of a restaurant. Some chefs also have patents on special types of preparations or vessels for their food.

                                            1. re: rubinow

                                              I'm not curious enough to wade through all of the Copyright Office's on-line data, but I'm sure they have how U.S. copyright law applies to recipes and chef's creativity spelled out in miniscule detail somewhere on their website. The Copyright Office is amazingly thorough at covering all contingencies.

                                              1. re: Caroline1

                                                Right. The Copyright Office explains it just how I explained it.

                                          2. So can someone copyright a technique then? Say like Adria's sodium alginate thing to make "ravioli" and "caviar;" would a technique like that be copyrightable because it seems like he himself invented that. Are would one be using a patent or something like for that edible menu stuff. '

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: digkv

                                              Techniques are the domain of patent, not copyright.

                                            2. Well, the thing the OP and everyone else seems to be ignoring is what the contest rules were. Did they require that the winning recipe be the baker's own creation? I suspect that if that were so, such a contest wouldn't have many entries. There are just too many ingredients that are common to most cookie recipes.

                                              But I could see value in a contest that awards prizes for the "best cookie" that came out of everyone in the contest using the same recipe!

                                              4 Replies
                                              1. re: Caroline1

                                                I can almost not imagine any cookie recipe - ANY - that would be entirely original. Is it a documented fact that the recipe that won the contest was adapted from a completely original recipe that had been created by the person who passed it along? I very very much doubt it. You'd have a serious amount of research to do in order to prove that, if you wanted to go track copyright. There are a LOT of cookie recipes out there. Good luck.

                                                Certainly if you were Ferran Adria and you invented some stunning dish made from olive pulp, oak leaves and cholorofluorophosphate, then of course anyone making anything similar to that would be liable to recourse in terms of copyright. But if Lulu La Fourchette had taken that recipe, changed the oak leaves to milkweed pods and then added a spoonful of peanut butter to the sauce it would no longer be Adria's dish. As long as she didn't use the exact same unique wording in the explanation of the procedure, this has now become an original Lulu La Fourchette recipe and that's the end of the story.

                                                On top of the legality of this, I'm not sure I understand the objection anyway. My understanding of the issue is that neither the source of the recipe nor the contest winner were professionals. The contest winner bothered to enter the contest after some tinkering to adjust the recipe to his/her taste. The source did not enter any contest and is now irritated that the other person won with his/her recipe. Really? Had he/she even considered entering a contest? Probably not.

                                                This reminds me of someone standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting and saying "Ha! I could have done that!" But you didn't. And Pollock did.

                                                1. re: Nyleve

                                                  I do think it would be interesting to have a contest where all the contestants are required to cook the same thing. A half century (or more) ago, when my first husband and I lived in Biloxi, Mississippi while he was in air traffic control school, I knew this 19 year old southern housewife who generally was not a very accomplished cook, but my god, that girl could make biscuits! Magic fingers! Her baking powder biscuits came out like yeast rolls! High, round, light and not a crease or wrinkle on their entire surface. I have never seen anything like it before or since. I watched her make them and studied her every move more than a dozen times and I could not, for the life of me, come close to what she produced. Yes. Magic fingers is the only explanation! So based on that, I think it could be very interesting to see what comes of a slew of chefs all making the same thing. Or even give them all a list of the same ingredients -- butter, flour, salt, eggs, milk, baking powder, whatever -- and see what they come up with. Cookies? Cake? Waffles? Hey, I've got a kinky mind.

                                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                                    When King Arthur Flour runs a state fair competition they give the fair officials the choice of having the contestants bake anything using KA flour or giving all the contestants the same recipe and judging based on pure skill.

                                                    You have to realize that most recipe contests are sponsored by food manufacturers as a means of publicity for their company and as a way of amassing more recipes that they can use to advertise their products. They're interested in the marketing aspects, not how skilled a cook any competitor might be.

                                                    1. re: rockycat

                                                      I "have to understand?" LOL! Curious choice of words.

                                                      I was thinking more along the lines of it being something interesting to see on the Food Network or the Cooking Channel. I don't go to cooking competitions.