Can you copyright a recipe?

Can you copyright a recipe?


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.


  • My understanding is you can’t copyright a certain list of ingredients, e.g., most potato salad recipes would have potatoes, mayo, salt and pepper, minced onion, etc.  in the list, but you can copyright the actual list of instructions. 

    I.e., it wouldn’t be legal to copy someone else’s “Cut potatoes into 3/4-inch cubes, and set aside in a bowl of water to prevent discoloration.”  You could rephrase it as “Potatoes discolor if left exposed to the air, so after cutting them into 3/4 inch cubes, put them into a bowl of water and set aside.”  They say exactly the same thing, but the rephrasing is one way the 2nd recipe writer can *own* what he/she says.  It is tricky and I know lots of bloggers don’t bother. 

    Whenever I feature any book recipe on my blog I try to imagine myself as a teacher and write exactly what I would say to a student if I were teaching him/her how to prepare the dish.  Oftentimes my explanation is nothing like the author’s original.

  • I don´t get to watch it much, but on an episode of “Good Eats,” Alton was working from a base TollHouse recipe for chocolate chip cookies.  He basically mentioned “Look it up yourself,” then mentioned the necessary modifications.  I think that was more a request from Nestle than any legal thing, though.

  • Hello
    Well if the recipes were copyrighted then we would not have the flavors as we have now.I reside in India and we have so many recipes here.We Indians are crazy about our food and we are having all kind of foods with various tastes and u just add one more thing to a recipe it changes to something different.
    How can you tell that if this amount of one spice is added then its one recipe but when you add some more it changes color smile
    So there is no way u can copyright it and also how can you trace the place of origin of the recipe?