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Recipe burglars, ‘copyrighted’ food & artistic theft

March 5, 2009

burglarThe other day a friend asked – well no, commanded – that I put here the Neil Perry recipe for a very delicious vegetable bakey number that I once cooked for her.  The recipe is from his book Good Food, which is one of my all-time favourite cookbooks.

This presents a problem though, doesn’t it? What are the ethics – or even simply the etiquette – of reproducing someone else’s recipe in a public forum?  I searched the net and found blog etiquette seems to dictate that so long as sources are properly acknowledged, everything is fair game for reproduction.

Still felt a little uncomfy though (not discomforted enough to refuse to put the Sydney Seafood School red curry recipe here though, obviously – I never said I wasn’t a hypocrite), so I looked up the copyright rules about recipes. My understanding there is that if I were to write down the recipe in my own words, I’d be off scot-free, basically.

But I still felt weird about it; I was on the cusp of emailing to ask Mr Perry’s permission to reproduce it, with all due credits and links etc (fully expecting a polite ‘no way, get ..’ in response) when I decided to simply Google the name of the recipe as it appears in the book. Voila. Google Books has already “plagiarised” the recipe before me, thereby providing me with a convenient liberation from today’s moral dilemma. Perhaps. Or perhaps this is more akin to repeating the crime of libel by reporting the substance of someone else’s …. sigh. Wearying.

Anyhoo – my first suggestion is buy the book – it is a beauty and every recipe I’ve cooked from it is spectacular. Otherwise, join the Googlethrong, check out the recipe for Baked zucchini with goat’s cheese ‘lasagne’  here.  And think about whether you should also buy the book. ‘Cos Neil Perry’s pretty hard up.

There’s a very good article here, from Food & Wine in 2006, about the dilemma of recipe ‘theft’ and reproduction, and the bizarre movement in the US towards copyrighting dishes and formally patenting recipes in restaurants.

I’ve been thinking about this issue of borrowing a lot lately – because it doesn’t just apply to recipes, obviously. All art is born of the art that’s gone before – but where does influence stop and injury begin?

I’ve just written an anthology introduction, the form of which was sparked by a part of an essay of Margaret Atwood’s. I haven’t used her words, obviously, and the topic is completely different, but the structural and rhythmic echoes are there. Her essay and my use of it raised for me rhythmic associations nobody else would ever notice, of Eliot Weinberger’s brilliant What I Heard About Iraq, as well as certain recent political speeches. What I’ve taken is the kind of gospel preacher’s cadence and rhythm of those pieces, not the ideas contained therein. But does the fact that I can pinpoint some of the precise antecedents of my little preface mean I should acknowledge each one alongside the preface itself, as a kind of step-by-step guide to how a piece of writing has been constructed in my mind?

Being accused of plagiarism is an awful, awful thing, so sickening that I would do almost anything to ward it off.  But in answer to the question of whether one should acknowledge the source of every glancing inspiration that comes to one on the cultural breeze, my very fierce instinct is to shout Nooo! Quite apart from the gaucheness of publicly declaring an association between one’s rather ordinary piece of writing and another’s masterpiece (ahem), there is the much more important issue of a free flow of ideas and inspirations.

I love Malcolm Gladwell’s erudite discussion of some of these issues, in his absolutely brilliant New Yorker essay, Something Borrowed. I am particularly enamoured of his generosity when seeing his own work, a piece of journalism about a psychiatrist named Dorothy Lewis, taken and squashed around and used in a stage play, Frozen, by Bryony Lavery. Gladwell says:

It also matters how Lavery chose to use my words. Borrowing crosses the line when it is used for a derivative work. It’s one thing if you’re writing a history of the Kennedys, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, and borrow, without attribution, from another history of the Kennedys. But Lavery wasn’t writing another profile of Dorothy Lewis. She was writing a play about something entirely new—about what would happen if a mother met the man who killed her daughter. And she used my descriptions of Lewis’s work and the outline of Lewis’s life as a building block in making that confrontation plausible. Isn’t that the way creativity is supposed to work? Old words in the service of a new idea aren’t the problem. What inhibits creativity is new words in the service of an old idea.

All hail Malcolm, I say.

One comment

  1. […] As I keep saying, just buy Good Food – it’s a great book; every recipe is a winner. Saves faffing around […]



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