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Recipe Attribution

There is significant ethical debate among food writers about recipe attribution. There are very clear ends of the spectrum but a whole lot of gray in the middle. It's pretty obvious that you shouldn't copy somebody's recipe verbatim and take credit for it, and it's also clear that you don't have to credit anyone if it's a recipe you came up with on your own. But what do you do if a recipe inspired you and you ended up changing several of the ingredients and the cooking method, does the original recipe writer deserve credit? What if a recipe you wrote was based on 3 or 4 different recipes, do all the writers deserve credit?

To start answering these questions, I want to first share the legal responsibilities you have. First, of course, a disclaimer! I'm a cookbook writer, not a lawyer, and any advice I give is just my opinion, before relying on any advice you should speak to an actual lawyer.

With that out of the way, the law basically says that a recipe writer doesn't own the list of ingredients or the method of cooking food, they only own the words describing it. So technically, I could get my favorite Bobby Flay cookbook, copy the ingredients from each recipe, rewrite the instructions, and legally publish it under my name. Here is the actual wording from the copyright office.

Copyright law does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients. Nor does it protect other mere listings of ingredients such as those found in formulas, compounds, or prescriptions. Copyright protection may, however, extend to substantial literary expression - a description, explanation, or illustration, for example - that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook.

Because the bar is set so low to follow the law, it really becomes an ethical decision to determine "what is right." This means that everyone needs to make their own decisions about what they feel comfortable doing. And just like everything else where individuals have to determine what they think is right, there is a ton of disagreement.

I personally try to treat other recipe writers as I would like to be treated myself, or like I would treat a friend if it was their recipe. If a recipe directly inspires me I will give credit to the original writer, even if I've changed the seasoning, cooking method, or other large parts of the recipe. If I'm researching a specific dish, I'll usually pull up several online recipes making that dish to get my bearings. Unless one of those really jumps out in a unique way, I don't credit all the other recipes because they were just used in aggregate. I've found that crediting other recipe writers is also a great way to expand your network, most writers are excited to hear that you were touched by a recipe they wrote.

Many food bloggers deal with this type of ethical question when writing on their blogs and many of the same considerations should go into effect. I highly recommend you choose a method you are comfortable with and stick to it, both on your blog and in your books. For some good information and views from both sides, I recommend reading the comments from Adjusting a Recipe Doesn't Make It Yours (Dianne Jacob also has a great book on writing cookbooks called Will Write for Food) and the article and comments for Recipe Attribution from the Food Blog Alliance.