What’s the Copyright in Recipes?

We all know not to copy chunks of other people’s stories or articles. Similarly, we all know that there’s no copyright on ideas, so we can write a story or an article about the same subject as someone else, as long as we don’t use the same words. In fact people do this all the time (I believe there are only seven basic plots?) but the finished manuscripts are usually all quite different.

By the way, although there’s no law against it, it’s not a good thing to ‘steal’ an idea, especially if it’s unusual and the originator is likely to recognise it after publication.

But what’s the ruling on recipes?

I’ve just sent a couple of recipes to Take a Break’s My Favourite Recipes magazine. However, I’m not the world’s best cook. When I was 14 my cookery teacher wrote on my report, ‘Sally’s written work is much better than her practical work‘ – I think it was her way of politely saying that I was useless in the kitchen!
So, I don’t invent recipes from scratch. I start with something from a cook book or magazine and make slight adjustments. At the very least, I always omit the garlic because my husband doesn’t like it, I often replace celery with carrots and I never have the right herbs so just throw in what I have.
Therefore the recipes I submit are not exact copies of those I started with it. But I was still a bit dubious about whether I might be breaking a law or ‘stealing’.

I did a quick internet search and found this useful article on the Paleo Living Magazine website. basically it says that copying a list of ingredients and basic directions for cooking the dish is OK. However, what may be protected by copyright is any ‘creative narrative’ with the recipe, such as how the dish was invented or suggestions for wine to go with the meal.

So it seems that I can continue sending off my slightly amended recipes in the hope of winning £25 if they’re chosen for publication.

Now I just need to practise my food photography so that my accompanying photos look at least a little bit mouth-watering!


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  1. #1 by susanjanejones on October 6, 2014 - 9:36 am

    That’s good to know, Sally. I always adjust recipes, recently my gingerbread men had a spoon of honey in to make them extra sweet, also they were a bit soft as well, how we like them. I remember a t.v. programme where Gordon Ramsay wanted the exact ingredients for curry in India, and the ladies were laughing at him, saying, ‘it’s aga aga,’ or some similar word. So now me and my daughter say, I’m doing aga aga, with everything. Add your own interpretation, I assume it means. Good luck with the recipes.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on October 6, 2014 - 3:49 pm

      Soft, sweet gingerbread men sound lovely, Susan!

      • #3 by susanjanejones on October 6, 2014 - 3:59 pm

        Yes, Sally, I even had a dream about one. It’s on my October giggle blog:)))

  2. #4 by Tracy Fells on October 6, 2014 - 9:38 am

    Hmm interesting had never thought of the copyright implications for recipes. Thanks, Sally, for an informative post.
    And I always came bottom of the class for domestic science. Now I enjoy watching Bake-off and that’s about as far as my baking skills are stretched …

    • #5 by Sally Jenkins on October 6, 2014 - 3:50 pm

      I think I’m the only person on the planet not watching Bake-off – perhaps my skills would improve if I did!

      • #6 by juliathorley on October 6, 2014 - 3:54 pm

        I’m not watching Bake Off either. I can’t stand cookery programmes. I’m no more interested in them than I would be in a programme on dusting.

      • #7 by Sally Jenkins on October 6, 2014 - 3:57 pm

        Very well put, Julia!

  3. #8 by jac dowling on October 6, 2014 - 10:10 am

    A very useful bit of info Sally, thank you. Our library support group is embarking on a recipes of yesteryear idea – tips, drinks, polishes etc. Things which are as good today as they were way back when. The copyright bit will help a lot. I used to do food styling, and it’s not easy – also, there often has to be a fair amount of tweaking! good luck.

    • #9 by Sally Jenkins on October 6, 2014 - 3:52 pm

      Food styling, that sounds like a glamorous job, Jac! And all the best with your yester-year recipes.

  4. #10 by juliathorley on October 6, 2014 - 10:38 am

    Sally, I used to be an in-house cookery editor. I think your quoted article just about covers it. Based on the assumption that there’s nothing new under the sun, it would, I think, be quite hard to create a completely new recipe (unless you’re Heston B). It’s all in the presentation, isn’t it? Obviously brand names are a no-no, but unless you actually lift a recipe from, say, the Sainsbury magazine and claim it’s your granny’s original I would have thought you’d be all right – in fact, who’s to say it wasn’t granny’s idea!

    • #11 by Sally Jenkins on October 6, 2014 - 3:54 pm

      Thanks for confirming things, Julia. And I never knew you used to be an in-house cookery editor – a woman of many talents!

      • #12 by juliathorley on October 6, 2014 - 3:57 pm

        I’ve had a varied past. My first ever job was as a petrol pump attendant, in the days when drivers stayed snug in their cars while someone dispensed their fuel for them.

  5. #13 by Linda on October 6, 2014 - 2:02 pm

    I’ve wondered about this too. With so many cookbooks around these days there must be lots of duplicate recipes and not many different ways of saying something like ‘mix all the ingredients together’. (Combine the individual components by moving a spoon through them in a circular path?)
    And do celebrity chefs have teams of researchers reading each other’s books to make sure they haven’t accidently come up with the same new idea?
    I think I’ll go and put a ready meal in the microwave!

    • #14 by Sally Jenkins on October 6, 2014 - 3:55 pm

      The ready meal’s easiest every time, Linda! But don’t you think the portion sizes are sometimes a bit small?

      • #15 by Linda on October 7, 2014 - 11:33 am

        Not when you’re on a diet!

  6. #16 by funnylass on October 7, 2014 - 2:14 pm

    V helpful Sally!Do you mind if I pass this onto others who love to scramble recipes together?
    Good luck too!

    • #17 by Sally Jenkins on October 7, 2014 - 4:26 pm

      Feel free to pass on, funnylass.

      • #18 by funnylass on October 9, 2014 - 12:31 pm

        have done Sally – hope you get more useful comments too!

  7. #19 by helenlaycock on October 7, 2014 - 3:30 pm

    Hmmm, interesting…

    Home economics wasn’t my best subject at school either. I made apple crumble and forgot the sugar and as for my shepherd’s pie… I burnt the mince until only a scrape remained, I burnt the pan until it seemed blackened beyond repair, I caught the pan alight by heating up raw potato peelings as the teacher said it would get the black off ( she didn’t mention that they should be in water), then dropped the finished pie, breaking the glass and cutting my thumb on the shards.

    Happy days…

    • #20 by Sally Jenkins on October 7, 2014 - 4:27 pm

      I think you might be slightly worse than me in the kitchen, Helen!

  8. #22 by carlpeters on October 7, 2014 - 3:52 pm

    I once saw one of them tv chefs (round a mate’s house on his sky) say about sealing the flavour out! So instead of browning anything off now I will get my ingredients together and bring to boil so that all flavours can go through everything! I also add my own (whatever’s in the cupboards, so true Sally!) spices, herbs, etc to make my own little touch on a recipe! Cooking is definitely another creative past time!

    • #23 by Sally Jenkins on October 7, 2014 - 4:28 pm

      Sounds like you’re a good cook, Carl. We’ll all be round your house for dinner!

  9. #24 by liz young on October 7, 2014 - 5:51 pm

    I should trawl TB for all the ideas I’ve posted on the Scoff thread and send those in! Mind you, almost everything I cook is ‘original’ by your ‘change a few things’ rules.

    • #25 by Sally Jenkins on October 7, 2014 - 6:49 pm

      And dishes always turn out differently depending on who cooks them, Liz.

  10. #26 by jac dowling on October 8, 2014 - 8:07 pm

    Come to South Africa Julia, all our petrol is ‘dispensed’ while we sit snug in our cars! good job creation.

    • #27 by Sally Jenkins on October 9, 2014 - 1:11 pm

      A shame it’s not still like that here, Jac. I hate it when my hands smell of petrol after filling up.

    • #28 by juliathorley on October 9, 2014 - 2:37 pm

      I used to get so cold, Jac, that I’d lose all feeling in my fingers. I definitely don’t want to be doing that again!

  11. #29 by funnylass on October 9, 2014 - 4:56 pm

    oh no! I hated it when living in Namibia…at first I used to fight with the pump guys….felt like my independence was being taken away from me! Mind you – I loved having the windscreen cleaned from half of the dead bugs in the Kalahari….

    • #30 by juliathorley on October 10, 2014 - 4:01 pm

      No one ever fought me for the honour, Funnylass – especially when the weather was grim.

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