Recipe-Jacking for Dummies

In November’s Food and Wine magazine, Pete Wells’s piece, “New Era of the Recipe Burglar,” discusses the prospect of rewriting American copyright laws to subject recipes to the same stringent copyright standards as, say, a technological invention or an artistic sculpture. The subject came up when Wells discovered that a fancy chef in Chicago had applied for a copyright to a dessert he’d created in the form of an edible piece of paper. Basically, some chefs working at the front edge of food trends, making noodles out of fish and air out of oranges, want to make sure that they get credit for their inventions (and, perhaps most importantly, that they get money when others use their ideas).

My take is this: yes, food can be a form of art. Those who come up with new stuff should not be plagiarized, and should receive credit where credit is due. (Wells’s story of the Australian chef who outright copied Grant Achatz’s recipes, techniques, and presentations was outrageous.) Fine. But.

But the whole article implies that food should be art. Fundamentally, though I respect the work these guys are doing, I feel that enabling them to copyright it implies that cooking to eat is not important; it implies that food MUST be art to be valuable. But I don’t think food has to be pretty or unusual to be good. Food can also be nourishment. Food can also be love. In fact, we actually need food to live (which Cantu, the Chicago chef trying to copyright his edible paper, apparently knows because he thinks it might be a convenient way to ship “food” to needy countries, hmmmm perhaps this is more about money?), whereas we don’t need sculpture (which is the copyright category Wells says recipes would most likely fall into) to live.

I feel like allowing recipes to be copyrighted takes the soul out of the food and turns it into some sort of commodity with a little microeconomy surrounding it, like a microchip or a pacemaker. I’m sure this food is pretty, but why would I want to eat it when I can roast a rack of lamb? I’ve never been all that into techie stuff; perhaps the reason I don’t watch HDTV or start my car from my living room is the same reason that the food these chefs are making doesn’t appeal to me: I want something simpler. I’m just stubborn that way.

And another thing. I do write a few recipes now and then myself. Wells says that it would be silly to copyright longstanding favorites, like French Onion Soup, that it might only make sense to give the wildest inventions their own little stamp of innovation. But where’s the line? How would someone like me, who might write a recipe for Asian-Inspired French Onion Soup, but instruct that it be served as a liquid with a spoon rather than as a foam with an onion-skin fan to blow the aromas up my nose, know when I’d actually written something I should copyright?

Perhaps, because I’m the type of person who likes to write my own recipes rather than steal them from others, and because I cook relatively homey, normal food (like, the kind you eat with silverware), I just don’t get how appealing it might be for a new chef at a cutting-edge restaurant looking to be outlandishly creative to borrow an idea or two from another chef. Guess I might never know the ins and outs of being a modern recipe jacker.

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