In the urban legend currently known as The Neiman-Marcus Cookie Recipe, someone buys a recipe for “two fifty,” thinking it will cost $2.50. They learn it is $250 and then, in anger, share the recipe with everyone they can.
Today, recipes are easily available and widely findable on the internet. Epicurious has a red velvet cupcake recipe from the Magnolia Bakery, which I’ve never heard of before, but they have a lovely looking pie on their home page. Conde Nast, owner of Epicurious, claims reserve to all rights and maintains that none of the content on Epicurious can be “reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached, or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast Digital.” This particular recipe comes from “More From Magnolia: Recipes from the World Famous Bakery and Allysa Torey’s Home Kitchen,” the copyright to which is held by Allysa Torey. Ms. Torey reserves all rights, including those of reproduction in the whole or part in any form.”
But, you see, this is wrong. At least, that’s what my lawyer tells me.
The recipe itself is a “mere listings of ingredients.” (U.S. Copyright Office – Recipes. Updated, November, 2010.) In the case of the Neiman-Marcus recipe, we have:
# 2 cups butter
# 4 cups flour
# 2 teaspoons baking soda
# 2 cups sugar
# 5 cups blended oatmeal
# 24 ounces chocolate chips
# 2 cups packed brown sugar
# 1 teaspoon salt
# 1 (8 ounce) Hershey Bars (grated)
# 4 large eggs
# 2 teaspoons baking powder
# 2 teaspoons vanilla
# 3 cups chopped nuts (your choice)
This list of ingredients is not copyright protected. What is copyright protected, however, is the story about how to make the cookies–the “substantial literary expression—a description, explanation, or illustration” that tells us what to do with this list of ingredients. (U.S. Copyright Office – Recipes. Updated November, 2010.)
In this case, we have:
Measure oatmeal and blend in a blender to a fine powder. Cream the butter and both sugars. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix together with flour, oatmeal, salt, baking powder and soda. Add chocolate chips, grated Hershey Bar and nuts. Roll into 1 inch balls and place 2-inches apart on a cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes at 375° or until golden.
We can take any recipe we want and post the ingredient list anywhere. If we want to post the fancy explanations, we need permission. And there are people that supply that. Open Source Food–a product of random googling–maintains a copyright of content on the site, but comments that recipes are available under a CC license “where indicated.” It’s up to user discretion.
Recipes I post here generally are released under a CC-BY-SA license, meaning that you can reproduce it however you want, as long as you say where you got it from and also share your reproduction in some similar manner. This isn’t to say that my recipes are so fabulous you should share them, merely that you can.
But they are pretty good.
Cooking communities come up in conversations about open source communities. In these communities, people share their “blue prints.” They tell you how they made something, how you can make something, and you can take these blue prints and modify them, change them, and use them. These activities inherently encourage modification, adaptation, remixing, and sharing. I take lots of recipes and make them vegan. People leave out salt, or replace coriander with cumin. They add garlic. People take these blue prints and turn them into their own. They share the changes they have made, in comments or in original postings.
Cooking communities, despite their lack of knowledge of copyright law, truly are participation driven groups that encourage collaboration, personalization, understanding your tools, manipulating them, and sharing them. They are totally all about free/libre/open-source.