Are Recipes and Cookbooks Protected by Copyright?

cooking with a cookbook

Photo Credit:  iStock/CentralITAlliance

Recently, the owner of a website that aimed to “fix online recipes” by removing ads and stories apologized and removed the website after receiving complaints via social media. While the website hoped to create an easier reading experience for visitors, the owner acknowledged that a great deal of time, money, and effort go into creating these recipes and the content that accompanies them.

Given the recent controversy, we thought this would be a good time to discuss the copyrightability of recipes. Can you copyright a recipe and, if so, which elements? What about copyright protection for cookbooks?

Copyright law protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. So, a work needs to be original, independently created by a human author, and possess at least some minimal degree of creativity while also being set in a sufficiently permanent form.

Recipes easily meet most of these requirements. For instance, they usually satisfy the “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” factor by being recorded in a cookbook or website or even on a piece of paper. They are also independently created by a human author — usually someone’s grandma, it would seem. However, despite meeting most of the requirements, standing alone, recipes are usually not protected by copyright.

Recipes are usually not protected by copyright due to the idea-expression dichotomy. The idea-expression dichotomy creates a dividing line between ideas, which are not protected by copyright law, and the expression of those ideas, which can be protected by copyright law.

There are rare times where the idea and the expression of the idea are so intertwined that there is only one way, or very few ways, to express the idea. When this is the case, that expression of the idea is not protected by copyright law. A recipe’s list of ingredients, or simple directions, is so intertwined with the idea of that recipe that there are very few ways to express this idea; so, a simple list of ingredients or simple directions will not usually be protected by copyright.

Based on this reasoning, the United States Copyright Office Compendium, the Office’s manual for examiners, states that a mere listing of ingredients or contents is not copyrightable, as lists are not protected by copyright law (chapter 313.4(F)). The Office has also stated that a “simple set of directions” is uncopyrightable.

In addition, courts have found that recipes are wholly factual and functional, and therefore uncopyrightable. As the Sixth Circuit described in Tomaydo-Tomahdo, LLC v. Vozary, “the list of ingredients is merely a factual statement, and as previously discussed, facts are not copyrightable. Furthermore, a recipe’s instructions, as functional directions, are statutorily excluded from copyright protection.”

Further, in Publications Int’l., Ltd. v. Meredith Corp., the Seventh Circuit explained that certain recipes may be copyrightable, as there is a difference between barebones recipes and those that “convey more than simply the directions for producing a certain dish.” So, what additional elements are needed to make a recipe eligible for copyright protection?

Recipes can be protected under copyright law if they are accompanied by “substantial literary expression.” This expression can be an explanation or detailed directions, which is likely why food and recipe bloggers often share stories and personal anecdotes alongside a recipe’s ingredients.

A recipe can also be protected by copyright law if it creatively describes or explains the cooking or baking process connected to the list of ingredients. Even if the description of the recipe is sufficiently creative and copyrightable, the copyright will not cover the recipe’s ingredient list, the underlying process for making the dish, or the resulting dish itself, which are all facts. It will only protect the expression of those facts. That means that someone can express the recipe in a different way — with different expression — and not infringe the recipe creator’s copyright.

Cookbooks Can Be Protected as Copyrightable Compilations

What about a compilation of recipes, like those found in a cookbook? A cookbook can be protected under copyright law as a compilation if the selection, arrangement, and coordination of the included recipes is creative.

The copyright for a compilation does not cover the individual works included in the compilation, such as the individual recipes within the cookbook. It only protects the arrangement and selection of those recipes. As the Supreme Court explained in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc., a factual compilation may be copyrightable, but copyright protection is limited to the “particular selection or arrangement” and never to the facts themselves. What this means is that someone could copy an individual recipe from a cookbook or a few of them without running afoul of the copyright law.

Looking to learn more about copyright protection? Check out the Copyright Law Explained section of our website.

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