Can You Copyright a Recipe?

By Betty Wang, JD on June 07, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Can you copyright a recipe? Sure, recipes come in various forms -- from grandma's best chocolate chip cookies ever to that world-renowned chef's secret signature sauce that no one's able to figure out. It seems as if everyone has their own special recipe.

As foodie culture has shown no signs of slowing down in its popularity, what can be said about the recipes behind every dish?

Here's what you may or may not know about what it takes to copyright a recipe.

General copyright law protects any original works that are "fixed" in a tangible form of expression, such as a book, a script, or a CD. While these categories are broad, there are many categories of material that cannot be copyrighted.

Things that can't be copyrighted include works that aren't tangible (ideas, for example), and things that are considered common property with no originality (basic instructions on how to boil water, for one, or standard calendars).

Where do recipes fall in this context? It depends on the circumstances of the recipe.

A Pinch of Creativity

Copyrights are meant to protect original, creative works. The courts are split on whether or not a recipe is considered creative. Or, rather, whether recipes are sufficiently creative enough to warrant protection under copyright law. Some may see recipes as just a listed process for how to make an edible item, rather than an expression of an artist (i.e., the chef or cook) and her creativity and passion for food.

To what extent individual recipes are actually protected is not entirely clear. However, recipe books or a collection of recipes are more likely to receive copyright protection, as they're in a tangible form and can be considered original, creative works.

For that one single, delicious, (and uniquely brilliant, expressive, etc.) recipe that you've been holding onto, however, it's unfortunately not going to receive much protection if you attempt to secure a copyright for it. You may want to hold onto it for now, and revisit the copyright issue once you have a collection of recipes you're ready to dish out to the public.

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