How much of a recipe needs to be changed so that I am not breaking any copyright laws?

UPDATED: Jun 7, 2012

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How much of a recipe needs to be changed so that I am not breaking any copyright laws?

I am starting a membership website where I will be making money. Part of the website includes recipes and most of these recipes have been adapted from recipes that I’ve found online or in a recipe book. Some ingredients have been changed as well as some preparation instructions. Are there any precautions I need to take when publishing these?

Asked on June 7, 2012 under Business Law, Wisconsin


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 10 years ago | Contributor

What you are proposing to do is dangerous: copyright includes not just the right to publish the material as is, but the right to create "derivative works"--or to publish a version that has a few strategic changes. If you adapt a specific published recipe from another person, you are violating copyright; while yes, there is clearly some point at which the recipe has been sufficiently changed so that it is no longer the original in any regards, even a derivative version of the original, where exactly is that point is  not readily or easily defined.

What you can do much more safetly is develop your own recipes, even if they are based on other's recipes, so long as you draw from multiple sources. For example: take choclate chip cookies. There are likely thousands of recipes  out there, varying slightly in ingredients, proportions, measurements, cooking time and temperature. If you look at a number of recipes and then come up with your own which is inspired by all the different ones you've reviewed--but NOT based on any one of them--that would be safe--you would not be creating a derivative work from any one copyrighted recipe.

This in turn means that it's much safer to publish your own version of recipes for fairly common dishes--meatloaf, chocloate ships, lasagna--then for very unusual or signature dishes, especially of famous chefs. For example,  say that Bobby Flay has a recipe for "pulled gator" which he did for a Louisiana restaurant on one of his shows--if you published that recipe, substituting sugar cane for brown sugar, you'd be violating his copyright, since it's safe to say that's the only "pulled gator" receipe you could be adapting.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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