Recipe Copyright Laws

By Michele Vrouvas

A new recipe for apple pie can bring fame and fortune to a chef, but he still might not be able to sue other cooks who steal his idea. However unique, the recipe might not meet federal statutory requirements for an original creation that deserves copyright protection against infringement, or the illegal copying of another’s work. Recipe copyright laws are not firmly established, and professional cooks often freely duplicate each other’s recipes with or without attribution. Judgments against recipe thieves are rare, but you should seek advice from a copyright attorney before using someone else’s recipe in your restaurant, cookbook or blog.


Until the early 1960s, U.S. courts applied federal copyright laws to recipes. In 1884, a cookbook author who copied another writer’s recipes was found guilty of copyright infringement, and in 1924, a federal court ruled that recipes on a bottle label contained the artistic originality necessary for copyright protection. But this trend changed in 1963 when Melville Nimmer’s treatise on copyright law argued that most recipes were not worthy of copyright protection because their list of ingredients was predictable and their how-to steps qualified as procedural explanations not protected under the U.S. Copyright Act. Applying Nimmer’s analysis, any recipe for apple pie would not be original because it must contain apples as ingredients and give instructions for how to make a pie.

Copyright-Protected Recipes

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, as of 2011, a recipe might qualify for copyright protection if it satisfies at least one of two conditions. First, it must have “substantial literary expression,” such as an author’s narrative about her Italian ancestors using ingredients from a backyard garden to make tomato sauce, or a compilation of sugar-free recipes assembled by a cook in an original manner. Second, the recipe must be in written form, although not necessarily published. Under either condition, copyright protection begins as soon as the recipe takes a tangible form; its author does not need to file a copyright application. Copyright duration depends on specific facts surrounding that recipe’s creation, but if it was created after January 1, 1978, the copyright usually will last for its author’s lifetime, plus 70 years.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now

Public Policy Arguments

Some legal scholars, such as law professor Christopher J. Buccafusco writing in the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, argue that recipe copyrights may conflict with the goals of U.S. copyright laws. He theorizes that individual chefs might stop experimenting in their fields out of fear they would unknowingly duplicate another chef’s creation. The goals of U.S. copyright laws are to promote learning, enrich the public domain and allow a creator of original works to enjoy financial success that comes from monopolizing the market for a limited time. But recipe copyrights could have the opposite effects because chefs and recipe developers might not be willing to prosecute recipe thieves who actually are helping to advertise a winning recipe through their copycat versions.

Fair Use

Under the U.S. Copyright Act, you can photocopy a favorite recipe from a magazine to prepare at home and defend yourself against charges of infringement by citing the fair use doctrine. That doctrine considers that the purpose of your use is non-commercial and unlikely to deprive the recipe’s creator of his monetary rewards. But don’t assume the fair use doctrine gives you blanket protection: author Cheryl Besenjack says in her book, "Copyright Plain and Simple," that the more copies of a recipe you make, the greater your chances of being sued for copyright infringement.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now
Can Therapeutic Techniques Be Copyrighted?



Related articles

Are College Lectures Copyrighted?

Copyright laws protect creators of original works by giving them the exclusive right to profit from their work for a specified length of time. College lectures can be copyrighted, but only to the extent they meet the copyright law requirements for originality and tangibility. The copyright for a college lecture may be held by the professor or college, depending on the terms of the professor's employment agreement.

What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?

Digital cameras and social networking sites have led to an increase in the volume of images across the media. Anyone who uploads images to a website, or who downloads or copies images created by others, should be aware of the importance of copyright. Copyright laws protect the creators of original works from unauthorized reproduction or copying and penalize those who fail to respect others’ copyrights. Chapter 17 of the United States Code contains the Copyright Act and the relevant laws.

How Close Can a Logo Be & Not Be a Copyright Infringement?

Federal copyright law protects original works of art and design used commercially, such as logos. If the copyright is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, anyone who violates the copyright by using it without permission can be subject to a lawsuit, as well as fines and damages. There are several conditions that determine whether a new but similar design violates a copyrighted logo.

Related articles

Can I Record Someone Else's Song and Change the Words in Parody Law?

United States copyright law grants legal protection to various creative works, including songs or lyrics. Under The ...

Does a Copyright Protect an Author's Creative Idea?

Copyright laws give authors and other creators property rights for their works of original authorship, including the ...

Can Furniture Be Copyrighted?

Copyright laws give people the exclusive right to profit from their original creative works for a specific length of ...

Copyright & Fair Use Guidelines for School Projects

Using materials created by other people in a school project isn't necessarily a violation of the copyright laws. ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED