Copyright and Recipes - How Does It Work?

by Lissie

Now that Wizzley has a recipe module - people may ask - can I publish my favourite recipes - even if they are published elsewhere?

Wizzley has just released a new module - the recipe module. The question arises though, can I publish recipes I use that come from a cookbook? It was my first question, although I'm a pretty good cook, I tend to follow or adapt recipes rather than create new ones. So, how does the copyright work with recipes? After all just because someone once published a recipe for chocolate cake or tacos, does that mean every recipe after that has to be different. I checked my existing, extensive, cookbook collection. Nope, plenty of my books seemed to have very similar chocolate cake recipes, same with the healthy stir fry suggestions. So what's the bottom line - is a recipe copyrighted or not? I decided to find out

So How Does Copyright on Recipes Work?

I thought I'd use an example of a very simple recipe - one of the first things that most kids learning to bake learn: scones. Here's a simple recipe 

Plain Scone Recipe

Plain Scone Recipe

Taken from the 1914 Edition of Edmonds' Cookbook

Prep time 10 min  -  Total time 20 min
Ingredients for 1 serving
1 breakfast cup of flour - heaped up  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of Edmonds' Baking Powder  • 1oz butter or lard  • 1 tsp salt  • 1 egg

Rub butter (or lard) into flour, then add other dry ingredients, beat egg with little water, mix all into dough. Bake as usual, quick oven. If made without the egg, use milk in place of water.

Image from Wikipedia

Recipe  0.0/5 Stars (0 Votes)

I copied and pasted the text of this recipe from an out-of-copyright, public domain edition of a current cookbook. Because the text is public domain I can use it freely - though if that was ALL that was on this page it wouldn't get published because of Wizzley's rules about duplicate content.

I then searched for a "scone recipe" and the following results where the first two results:

Different Versions of the Same Scone Recipe

Best Ever Scone - Edmonds
The current version of the same recipe by the same copyright holder. Interesting how its changed over the years

Edmonds' Scones - on
Exactly same ingredient list - different instructions

The recipes aren't quite the same - the modern day recipe are 3 cups of flour rather than one, and uses milk instead of an egg (though the original does include this variation). Its pretty close though. As you'd expect - baking is just applied chemistry - and to make scones you will need flour, baking powder and either milk or eggs! 

Both of the modern recipes do list identical ingrediants.

So is the recipe an illegal copy? Clearly the original recipe's copyright is with Edmonds surely? Well yes it is. Probably, after all plenty of people were making scones much earler than 1914, but for arguments sake its fairly obvious that Edmonds is more likely to own the copyright than

But this is where it gets interesting. From my understanding - there is nothing at all wrong with having a copy of the same recipe - because the method of preparation / instructions are totally different. And they haven't used Edmonds' photos.

Copyright Law and Recipes

According to the US copyright office  US copyright law does NOT protect a "mere listing of ingredients". However copyright does protect: the description and/or description of what to do with said ingredients, also any illustrations or pictures. 

So, as I read it, and I am no lawyer: 

  1. You can reproduce a list of ingredients that have been published elsewhere, either on or offline.
  2. You must include your own description of how to make the recipe. You can't copy the originals. 
  3. You can't use their images or illustrations without approval. 
  4. Collections of recipes are copyright protected. So you can't go through the index of a popular recipe book, recreate each recipe, and publish it as your own. 
Also from my knowledge of writing online, and now I do know something! 
  1. You should include images or illustrations, who buys cookbooks without images. You MUST have the right to use those images. The easiest way is to take the photo yourself. You could also you use copyright free images. Or you could use images available for free use (see Free Stock Photos). 
  2. If you know anything about SEO (and if you don't I suggest you read my page SEO for Writers) - don't title your recipe "Aunty Joan's Best Sponge" Instead call it something like "Easiest Sponge Recipe for Beginners" or even "Low-Fat Sponge Recipe" (assuming it is of course).

Recipes on Wizzley

I must say that recipes is one thing I haven't tried online. But I may just do so with the new Wizzley module, why?

Two reasons: first I increasingly find that I don't use my numerous cookbooks - I use my laptop or even my Kindle. Its not totally straightforward using recipes from different countries - but its fun, and easy to google "recipes with squash" rather than trying to find a recipe for a new vegetable from my existing books and their inefficient indexes!

Secondly - Wizzley is using the new "recipe microdata" format. What the heck is that you might ask? Well you have probably already seen it - here's an example of a couple of the results when I googled "Christmas cake recipe"

Recipe MetaData

The image and reviews are automatically parsed from the website. When did you last buy a cookbook with out pictures? Exactly - so make sure you have ORIGINAL images to go with your recipes. 

More Links on Copyright and Recipes
Good tips for writers of recipes

eHow on Recipe Copyright Law
Its the description which makes a recipe copyrightable

Some of my Recipes on Wizzley

You can make this cake gluten free or not, for the dieter, this is a flourless cake, so is much lower in calories than most chocolate cake recipes
Updated: 03/13/2012, Lissie
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ymunro on 03/02/2013

Good to know. One always worries about duplicate content and copywriting.

RubyHelenRose on 02/27/2013

Exciting information. That makes it much easier to get some yummy recipe ideas up on here. Going to your recipe next, thanks!

Mike_W on 09/12/2012

Thanks Lissie, I was just wondering about this very thing.

Donna_Cosmato on 04/07/2012

Good tutorial on both copyright laws and the benefits of the new recipe module. Thanks for taking the time to research this and share it.

dustytoes on 03/20/2012

I might have to try the new Wizzley module and do some baking now. Thanks for this useful info on sharing recipes online.

sheilamarie on 03/16/2012

Thanks so much, Lissie, for this article. Like the others who've responded before me, this problem has been eating away at me, and I don't think that's the purpose of a recipe -- we're supposed to be able to eat the results! In my recipe articles, I have tried to vary the original a bit, even though the originals of my recipe articles on Wizzley have been friend to friend sharing. In other words, I didn't find them in a book although they may have originated there at some point. So I've tried to change a few things here and there to make them original. I may proceed a bit differently now. You've eased my mind.

Lissie on 03/14/2012

@tombok - yes that's my understanding - it applies to any list of ingredients - follow the US copyright link in the article - as what they say is more generic than just food recipes.

@Mary - I can take no responsibility for the for voices in your head :-)

@Dorsi - I must admit that I had to use someone else's photo for the chocolate cake recipe - I can't possibly make it again this week - I'm on a diet!

Dorsi on 03/14/2012

Great info Lissie. I had wondered about recipes and how copyrights worked. I guess I have to start cooking now, taking my own photos and start writing up some recipes!
Tweeted, plussed, FB'd and rated up.

BrendaReeves on 03/14/2012

Lissie, Thank you for the article. I have always wondered about this.

MaryEll on 03/14/2012

I have been wondering about this for a long time--thanks for answering the voices in my head! (Well, one of them anyway ;) )

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