Around the Food Blogs: The Ethics of Recipe Writing, Publishing and Blogging

Meg of Megnut posted an article that appeared earlier this year in the Washington Post about recipes and copyright, and Kate of the Accidental Hedonist wrote a bit about it on her blog this week. When the article came out, I remember writing about it on The Paper Palate, back when I was editing that blog, and I think that the issue is pretty clear cut and simple.

Legally speaking, a recipe, per se, cannot itself be copyrighted in the USA. The list of ingredients and amounts cannot be copyrighted, but the literary expression–that is to say–the wording, grammar, syntax and sentence structure used to convey the method of putting those ingredients together is seen as a unique intellectual property akin to a poem or a short story, and thus, -can- be copyrighted. An entire cookbook, as a literary product, is copyrighted, but each individual recipe, most particularly, the ingredients list, is not.

What does this mean for us food bloggers?

Well, it means that if you read a recipe in a book, newspaper, magazine or blog, and copy the ingredients list exactly and then just rewrite the instructions for putting the recipe together in your own words, then technically, you are not “stealing” copyrighted material. You are then under no obligation to say where you got the recipe in the first place.

However, legality is not the same thing as ethics. Plenty of unethical actions are, or were at one time, perfectly legal. Slave-owning, for example, was, at one time legal in the US. That didn’t make it morally or ethically defensible, it just meant that it was legal.

No, slave-owning is not the same thing as taking a recipe that someone else wrote and presenting it as one’s own-I just used the first example off the top of my head of an action that was at one time legal, but was, in my opinion, never ethical to make my point that the law of the land is not the same thing as personal ethics.

As a blogger, I find it very important to have a strong sense of personal ethics that are not limited by the letter of the law.


Because I work hard writing my blog, and as a writer, I don’t want anyone else presenting my work as their own. I am sure that every other writer in the world understands this, and I am pretty certain that most readers do, too. It sucks to have one’s work co-opted by someone else who then takes credit for the creativity that it represents.

So, here is my take on the -ethics- of the issue of recipe writing, publishing and blogging:

If I present my own recipes to my readers, all free of charge, and give them away with the caveat that I only want them to tell folks where that recipe came from–in other words, pass down the story that tells the origin of that recipe–because that is the fun part of this blog writing business–storytelling, then it behooves me to give the same courtesy to all other recipe writers.

That means, that if I am inspired by a recipe I read in a book, newspaper, magazine or blog, and I write about it, I am obligated to tell the truth of the origin of the recipe, as that is part of the story of its origin. That way, I am not taking credit for someone else’s work.

What happens if I change the recipe considerably, however, before I blog about it?

This is a good question, because really–I seldom -ever- cook a recipe as written, no matter who wrote it. Madhur Jaffrey can write it, and I don’t care, I will still change it. It is just how I am. So, if I change it, do I still feel obligated to tell where it came from?

Of course. It is still part of the history of the recipe. It is part of its origin. Personally, I feel obligated to tell what inspired me to make a recipe, even if I change it beyond all recognition.


Well, I think it is because at heart I am a storyteller, and because I was trained as a journalist, and I have an interest in the history of food.

As a storyteller, I want to tell folks why a recipe is interesting, and why they should cook it up in their own kitchen. Sure, the food is tasty and all, but I don’t read cookbooks just because I want to read about what food tastes like. That is secondary–I want to know the -story- behind the recipes. What compelled someone to make up this recipe? Where did it come from? Who made it first? Who passed it down to whom, how and why?

As a journalist, I remember having it drilled into my head that we must be factual, and we must, above all, tell the truth. I mean, I tend to be a bluntly honest person anyway, but that has been bolstered over the years of doing straight news reporting, which is all about “just the facts, ma’am.”

And as an armchair historian, I think that food and recipes are repositories for human culture that are often overlooked by the sorts of historians who see human history as a series of wars, conflicts and names and dates. Yes, yes, all of that is interesting, and is contains the material for many a fine story, but I like to look for the story of humanity in different places–like the kitchen. And so, when I present recipes, I like to be very thorough in my description of their historical pedigree, because I think that I cannot possibly be the only person of a historian’s bent who finds this stuff fascinating, and maybe, in my own little way, I am helping to document a little bit of 20th-21st century kitchen history.

So, there we are–my thoughts on the ethical considerations of recipes, writing, publishing and blogging.

What are other folks’ feelings on the issue?


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  1. As a professional magazine food writer, I’ve had my recipes “adapted”, “inspired”, and copied word for word. I try to take a more generous view, that recipes are to be shared — after all, why else write them down? But when it comes to using the stories I write with the recipes, or the context in which I set them, I expect to be given credit for my creative work. And I always credit others for inspiring my work. I guess I come down on the side of “always credit the source,” because it is the ethical, and generous, thing to do.

    Comment by Lydia — August 8, 2006 #

  2. I agree with you Barbara–part of the fun of foodblogging is telling the story of the food I make. Lately, because I read so many food blogs, I’ve been inspired by fellow bloggers. Even if I change the recipe completely, I still think it’s nice to say, “Hey, here’s where this idea came from.” I’m not worried about getting sued–for me, that would be the wrong motivation, anyway–I’m much more concerned with being a good food blogging neighbor and with being honest with my readers. Hearing those stories from other bloggers–how the recipes came about–is why I love to read them so much. Another thing is that I assume my readers are like I am–they want to see several different versions of a recipe and figure out the best way for them to make it. If I can show them some of the recipes that inspired my creation, then they have more choices to make about how they want to personalize a dish. That, to me, is what the sharing of cooking is all about.

    Comment by Jennifer — August 8, 2006 #

  3. i totally agree with you with regards to original recipes, but i feel less inclined if I adapt a traditional recipe, because in those cases the chef’s I am looking to for measurements as reference undoubtedly did not originate the recipe anyway.

    For example: meringue, scones, pancake batter, fairy cakes, summer pudding – all those things I have been cooking all my life from one recipe book or another, I don’t feel a need to give a credit exactly, since the chef whose book I am looking in didn’t attempt to credit anyone either and they sure didn’t invent these dishes. That said, I never copy verbatim anyway – like you I have my own way of doing things.

    In these cases I would more often than not include stories, research and background information too about the recipe.

    I would be less inclined to publish more original recipes from elsewhere on my blog, but if I did, of course I would give all the appropriate credit, even If I adapted. Which I probably would do.

    Comment by sam — August 8, 2006 #

  4. I most enjoy honest story telling of the entire process. Who, why, where and when are what make me care. I love for the blogger to show me how this idea lead them to get to another! It seems to help me look at the next recipe differently.
    Copying word for word is silly, a waste and certainly not ethical.

    Comment by tanna — August 8, 2006 #

  5. This is very interesting – I always wondered about what the situation was with copyright.

    I like the idea of giving the history/provenance, but I’m as much (maybe more?) of a researcher than a story-teller, and for me, I like knowing where a recipe comes from so I can go find the source and discover more wonderful recipes like it. This can be literal, as in – “go buy cookbook X” or it can be more broad – “..hey I sort of like this south Indian vegetarian recipes, where can I find more like that?”

    Comment by Diane — August 8, 2006 #

  6. I happen to feel that I ought to be honest about where my recipes and inspiration come from, even when I’ve made changes (as I tend to do). If I forget, I like to admit that. The exception is where it’s such a standard thing, like a basic tart dough or whatever, where you can find the basic proportions just about anywhere. Then, I feel no credit is due.

    Comment by Danielle — August 8, 2006 #

  7. I learn from others’ cookbooks, so I always attribute the original recipe (if applicable), no matter how much I change it in the actual cooking. I think Sam has a good point in terms of traditional recipes, though. Hmm.

    Comment by Winslow — August 8, 2006 #

  8. Don’t you mean legality is NOT the same as ethics?

    I agree that giving credit is the right thing to do, but it’s a blurry line sometimes. I often combine 2-3 recipes to come up with one that suits me. The original idea might be so far removed from the final recipe that it’s not even relevant anymore.

    Comment by Amy — August 8, 2006 #

  9. I agree giving the credit to where you picked up the refrain, just adds to the long history of food. It can guide the reader backwards and add to the ‘forks’! Many wonerful cuisines too, come together somewhere and then go their own way again.

    All passionate cooks deviate from a given recipe. It can be habit, tweaking a recipe more to your tastes, or as happens with me, out of necessity – (un)availability of certain ingredients. But citing the source of your inspiration is a ‘thankyou’ to the cook before you.

    Comment by Anita — August 9, 2006 #

  10. What… you mean you actually don’t copy recipes word for word? Just kidding.

    I agree with everything that’s been written. Sometimes, though, when I’ve really worked to make a recipe “just right” (aka testing several times, trying different mixing/cooking techniques, taking notes on timing/texture/etc.) I feel that it’s “mine” to share as mine – while giving some of the testing history. But after reading everything you’ve posted, I’m starting to wonder if that’s “wrong”…?

    Comment by VeuveClicquot — August 9, 2006 #

  11. First–Amy–thank you for pointing out the lack of the word, “NOT” in my statement! I hate it when that happens. That is what happens when one is talking and writing at the same time, though!

    I’ll be back to comment more later–right now I have to take Morganna to an appointment!

    Comment by Barbara — August 9, 2006 #

  12. I agree with you Barbara. I hate it when someone uses my recipe without giving me credit for inspiring them. I took time and effort to present it to my readers, and it’s my work.

    Having ethics, especially in writing is highly imporatant. And in the blogosphere, where practically everything is much for grabs, it’s good ethics to give credit where it’s due.

    Comment by Meena — August 9, 2006 #

  13. I couldn’t agree more that there is a difference between what is legal and what is ethical. I don’t know why, if you had a favorite recipe and changed the wording around so that you could legally post it, you would want to give credit to the source you took it from? Maybe it is just me, but I would very happily give credit where credit is due.

    Comment by risingsunofnihon — August 9, 2006 #

  14. I love your stories, but I’m not so good at stories myself.

    As for crediting, it tends to depend for me on how traditional a recipe is and how much I modify it. Pesto recipes, in general, don’t vary that much, and there’s no particular recipe that inspired mine. My Tom Kha Gai recipe I modified from about six others (which I pretty much used for a general idea of the ingredients) and have since modified repeatedly, so I don’t credit it because I don’t really remember the history anyway. But my Chicken Makhani is very much based on Julie Sahni’s, so I do credit that.

    It’s a case-by-case basis for me, I guess.

    Comment by Mel — August 9, 2006 #

  15. When I was taking Intellectual Property in law school, I was appalled to learn that recipes have so little legal protection. However, constructing a consistent law that protects recipes from plagiarism would be unworkable (really, just trust me on this one), so the shame factor is the best we can do. I tend to think that you should use the same criteria for deciding whether credit is due for recipes as you would for any other source. I’m a lawyer, so I probably over-cite a bit, but I would much rather give credit where it may not be due than neglect it where it is. An advantage to citing my sources is that readers can then see for themselves how much I have deviated from my source material.

    I guess this is my somewhat long-winded way of saying I agree with you.

    Comment by Rebeccafrog — August 9, 2006 #

  16. Personally, I think it’s a risky business to give other people’s (stories behind the) recipes as your own, especially on the internet. I’m quite sure that in this open society somebody will quickly find out, if you are stealing your stories from someone else and then it can turn into quite a shameful affair. I just don’t see how stealing recipes and stories would be worth the loss of face and credibility that follows by the exposure.

    Or, then it can be that people don’t care and/or they forget, so it doesn’t really matter if one’s a stealing, lying SOB. (and, as they say, any publicity is good publicity)

    There is just one thing about stealing recipes and stories that I don’t quite understand: why steal, when one can just as well ask the author of the original if it is okay to use the story (with credits) and more often than not one gets a permission to do so. It’s not like many of us make a whole lot of money having our stories just on our own blogs, or hate being mentioned on other sites…

    Comment by Kalle — August 9, 2006 #

  17. I totally agree with Sam and the whole classic recipes thing. Every time I make some varient on chocolate chip cookies do I have to reference the inventer of the Tollhouse cookie? Or is it accepted that the “new” recipe is my creation?

    I don’t claim that I invented chicken salad, cannellini bean dip or chocolate chip cookies but I can claim that the versions I post on my site (and all other recipes I post) are the results of me tinkering around the kitchen without a recipe. Have I seen recipes for chocolate chip cookies, chicken salad and bean dip before? Yes. Might mine be similar? Yes, there are only so many ways to make these things. Does that make the recipe any less mine? I don’t think so. I see no reason to reference a source if I did not follow (or modify) a set recipe.

    Which is not to say that I don’t follow recipes in my personal cooking, I do all the time and yes, they may tangentally provide the foundation for other recipes (the realization of the best ratio of flour to butter to eggs in cookies for example is a result of making many, many cookies with other people’s recipes) but I’d never post a recipe that wasn’t created by me.

    Of course that’s my choice. Many people choose to follow other people’s recipes and that’s fine as long as they quote the source. I have had many people post my original recipes and link back to me. I just like to avoid the issue all together and only post my personal experiments.

    Comment by Rachel — August 9, 2006 #

  18. I completely agree with you Barbara. There is no good reason not to quote a source for a recipe, even if it was just an inspiration.

    For me, the best part of cookbook or recipe site is finding out where the recipe comes from. And I think it cheats the reader not to explain why or where the recipe originates.

    Comment by Kitarra — August 9, 2006 #

  19. I feel that recipes are part of culture and where would we be if parts of our culture were slowly copyrighted?

    Take family recipes, for example. Who has the copyright on them? Me? Because I wrote it down first on my blog? My sister because she sent it to me in an email? My cousin because she is much older and has been cooking it before I was born?

    I am all for attribution to the source and that ties in with Barbara’s point on ethics. However, that has its limitations, too, as the source may not always be *the* source for the recipe.

    I would place recipes are more within the realm of copyleft.

    Comment by Manisha — August 9, 2006 #

  20. Quoting sources (even for inspiration) shares the looooove around. And I looooove telling the stories. It’s like a party in the kitchen.

    Anyway, intellectual property been berry berry good to me. Paid for my kitchen remodel.

    (Barbara, I know you’ve told me that cat’s name before, but I forgot. That’s the one that looks rather like my Maggie, to the point I did a mini-double take!)

    Comment by Charlotte — August 9, 2006 #

  21. Lydia–I agree that recipes are to be shared–otherwise, why write a food blog?

    And yeah–I am happy when folks use my recipes, or are inspired by them. I have never had anyone claim any of my work as their own (that I know of), and I am glad of it. But, I have seen other bloggers work co-opted before and it really stinks.

    (In fact, I have turned in some of the copyists myself.)

    Jennifer–I am so completely with you on that. Having more than one recipe to refer to for a reader who is a culinary nerd like myself is a great bonus.

    I also think that sharing links, and sharing sources builds community among food bloggers, and I think that is important, too. One of the greatest things about the ‘net is the ability it gives people to create virtual communities across the world. I think that is great, because the more connections humans make cross-culturally with others, the more we understand that we are all truly one people. (And the sooner a large number of humans figure that out, the sooner we can look forward to peace.)

    Sam–I also agree that most “general” recipes or basic recipes don’t need a source quoted. But, if I have a single source for one, I would quote it anyway–especially if there was something intersting about that cookbook or author–like the cookbook is seventy-five years old or whatever.

    In fact, any detail like that just makes the recipe more interesting–at least to folks like me.

    I also agree that everyone has a special way of doing things. (Now, as for fairy cakes, as a non-Brit, if I were to make some–I would use your recipe and quote it as from you. To you, that might be a basic recipe–but to me, it is unusual, and special, and I first really heard about it from you. Hence–it isn’t a basic recipe, and so, the source should be given.

    Also, your great photo that went with it is indelibly cemented in my head with the concept of a fairy cake–so–there is nothing basic to me about it. Even if it is basic to you.

    But because of the picture and the way you wrote the post, to me fairy cakes = Sam’s pretty wee cakes with fairies hovering over them.

    I guess basic is in the eye of the beholder….

    Tanna–I had no idea so many people loved the stories of recipes as much as I did. That is why I started writing a food blog–to record recipes -and- stories, so I am glad to know folks are into that.

    Diane–that is a great point, too. Finding more of a recipe like the one blogged about–that is a great reason to post sources, especially when it is from another blogger or a cookbook. I hadn’t looked at it that way, but that is such a great point. Thanks!

    Danielle–I reach! I have read in many a food blog, “I got this recipe from somewhere, but I don’t remember where, now…” or, even more commonly, “I got this from my Mom, but she doesn’t remember what book it came from….”

    That makes it interesting, too, you know. It is neat how recipes become part of our lives–it tells us how cookbook authors touch us in a permanent way.

    Winslow–that is what is great about this kind of discussion on a blog–we have multiple points of view to think about.

    Amy—once again, thank you for noting my typo! I fixed it!

    The only reason in my mind to print sources when you mix two or three recipes together and come up with something so new that the sources seem no longer relevant, is just to document the history of a recipe and to show how the creative process worked in your head and in your kitchen. Sometimes I do the same thing–and I think it is interesting to show the evolution of a dish.

    That is of course, part of the -whys- of cooking that I find so fascinating. Why did you change this ingredient for that one? How did you come up with that thought? What do you think would happen if you added this other ingredient, or poached this instead of broiling that?

    Anita–particularly when the source was another food blogger–it is great to tip the toque in their direction and let them know that they have inspired you. When folks have let me know I have inspired them, it has made my day!

    VeuveClicquot–when a recipe is changed significantly–I think it does become “yours.” So, I don’t think you are wrong–but we each have our own way of doing things. Not only in the kitchen, but in our writing, too! I am just fascinated to hear what everyone has to say here!

    Meena–hear, hear!

    Risingsun–I guess some people wouldn’t. But I don’t see much of that in most blogs. Most folks seem to say, “I read this in Fine Cooking and had to try it, so here is the recipe….” or whatever.

    Mel–glad you like the stories…they are fun for me to write. My relatives live on in the stories and recipes I share from my childhood here. I like that.

    Rebeccafrog–I agree with you that the process of drafting a law to protec recipe copyright would be onerous in the extreme.

    Kalle–you are right. People remember other people’s posts and writing and will blow the whistle. I’ve done it. Plagiarism is plagiarism, whether you are lifting the story of the development of cookies or a piece of prize-winning literature. It doesn’t matter! It is still skeevy, to put it nicely.

    Rachel–that is a perfectly logical, consistent way to deal with the issue.

    Kitarra–there are so many good reasons to quote sources–it helps readers do more research, or find more recipes like that one, it documents the development of a recipe or an idea–and it is just plain interesting to see how different people vary the basics of a single recipe.

    Manisha–many recipes are pretty much considered to be public domain, anyway. That is why they cannot really be fully copyrighted. And that is fine–it would be a mess to try and change that.

    Charlotte–his name is technically Lennier, but nobody calls him that anymore. We call him, variously, Schmoo, Schmooby, Moo, Mooncalf, Mooncat, Moocat, Cowcat, and Moonie.

    It is because he has a wattle-tummy that looks like an udder, and he is shaped vaguely like a Schmoo. And he is very weird–he loves water, and so we call him Mooncalf–which is an Elizabethan English term for someone who was a bit touched in the head…..

    And yes, I remember that picture I saw of Maggie in the sink, and I was like–Lennier has a sister!

    Comment by Barbara — August 9, 2006 #

  22. thats too funny – fairy cake is the only recipe that i have known off by heart without looking in a book for as long as I can remember
    4,4,4 & 2,
    6,6,6 & 3
    8,8,8 & 4

    are the ratios of
    butter, sugar, flour & number of eggs
    in a basic sponge recipe that all my life I have used for victoria sponges, butterfly cakes and fairy cakes.

    I am with you though – still – if I made an American Pancake – a basic for you I am sure, but I wouldn’t have a clue so no doubt I would find out how to via a blogger and then quote them if I went on to blog my experience.

    I just made a recipe which originated from Cream Puffs in Venice and even though I made it 4x before posting, with changes each time, and the final is far removed from the original, ivonne got all the much deserved credit as my inspiration.

    I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Comment by sam — August 10, 2006 #

  23. Excellently written, Barbara!

    As someone who features one cookbook every month on my blog, and often blogs about several recipes from that particular cookbook, it’s very important that I give credit where credit is due.

    Not just because it’s important to be factual or truthful, but also because I feel duty bound to tell people where the idea came from. For me the idea of the food is so important! And it’s only right to share who or what inspired that idea in the first place.

    That’s just my two cents …

    Comment by Ivonne — August 10, 2006 #

  24. This is another fantastic post Barbara. Thank you for this information as I have never really been clear on this issue. Even so, I err on the side of safety (or really, the side of politeness) and include an “adapted from…” line in my posts. Like you, I stir recipe ingredients and directions around like alphabet soup until they re-align themselves in a manner that I like. I think the only exception to this might be with recipes for baked goods where too much personalizing might really affect texture and density.

    When I do not cite a source for a recipe, then it is usually a hybrid of a half dozen recipes that I researched online, or a creature born out of the morass of ideas incubating in my head for great lengths of time. I would actually find it hard in many instances to give a specific credit because I myself have lost track, or the sources are rather numerous. I don’t think I’ve ever wrestled with, “Is this legal?” as much as, “Is this too much peripheral information that nobody cares to read?”

    My writing style tends to be light and humorous. I try to avoid overly lengthy posts because I don’t want my readers to get bored. I am also not the good storyteller that you are. Reading your post, and the many comments within, tells me that more people than I previously imagined might find this information valuable. I will play with adding more “story behind the story” and see what comments the posts receive. Thanks to you and to your readers for sharing views on this thought-provoking topic.

    Hhhmmmm…that sure was a long comment from somone who claims to keep their posts brief!

    Comment by Kevin — August 11, 2006 #

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