Can one copyright a recipe? You might be surprised to learn that you cannot. Then again, since recipes have been freely traded for ages, you might not be surprised.
The key is to look at the components of a recipe. In the 1996 decision Publications Intl. v. Meredith, the Supreme Court ruled that the a listing of ingredients and their quantity is a statement of facts and one of the most basic principles of copyright is that you can’t copyright a fact. If I write that the sky is blue, I can’t copyright that fact such that everyone else would have to get my permission to say that the sky is blue. Likewise, even though there are many variations on the recipe, you can’t copyright the fact that a particular recipe for, say, enchiladas, contains 1 pound of cooked, diced chicken.
As for the directions, that’s even more clearly not copyrightable. Because the recipe directions are either a “procedure, process, [or] system,” they can’t be copyright either, although unique systems can be patented. Of course, the patent process is long and expensive and it’s unlikely anyone will bother to file a patent for the instructions on how to make Grandma’s Chicken Soup.
What that leaves are the chef’s notes, illustrative description, photos and illustrations, and the layout of the cookbook. For example, you could take every recipe in Mario Batali’s latest cookbook and copy them onto a web site, leaving behind the introduction, the photos, and his notes on the preparation of the dish. That may not be ethical, but it’s probably legal.
But rather than steal someone else’s hard work, the spirit of the recipe exchange is that we all share good food. There is something about food and cooking and eating together that is essential to man’s communal nature. It’s why one of the symbolic meanings of the Mass is that of a ritual meal. So, yes, apart from all the legal and technical reasons why we don’t copyright recipes, there’s also the ineffable reason as well, the one that tells us that sharing good food made with love is essential to the human experience.