Monday, 16 March 2015

Recipe certification and copyright

I've just been asked by (someone important) to do some research (for someone else more important) on the topic of 'certification of traditional Greek recipes' eg pastitsio, soutzoukakia Smirnis, etc. While I applaud interest in this kind of research - as a way of showcasing Greek identity in a positive way - as a long time food blogger, I know how pointless such research would be, as you would constantly be going nowhere while running around in circles. For this reason (and because I know that I would never get any credit whatsoever for research which will prove fruitless), I gave them a very concise reply:

"Certification of traditional recipes is not really possible. Recipes are not the same as food products; they are simply instructions on how to make a food product. A food product can be certified, but a recipe cannot. For example:
- We can have a certain health body certifying a recipe for its benefits (eg recipes certified by the American Heart Association)
- We can have products certified for their features (eg organic, PDO, PGI)  
- We can have restaurants that are certified for using specific products - but not for the recipe they use to make those products (eg Ntounias in Drakona, Hania is certified for serving Cretan cuisine 

We can readily find discussions about the certification of traditional products but they always concern finished products; the recipe used is not certified in any way - the product that a recipe uses is what is certified, ie the finished product. 

Certification is different to copyright. Many recipe authors copyright their recipes, but this does not mean that their recipe cannot be reproduced by anyone else. You only need to change one ingredient, and a recipe is different. Instructions can also be changed just slightly, and again you have a new recipe: 
Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, when a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection. Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author's expression in literary, artistic, or musical form. Copyright protection does not extend to names, titles, short phrases, ideas, systems, or methods. 
We cannot simply copyright a well-known recipe, either. This has been settled pre-internet (!):
The most definitive case on this issue was Publications International, Ltd. v. Meredith Corp. (88 F.3d 473 (7th Cir. 1996)). This case involves the fascinating subject of a book of Dannon yogurt recipes. Meredith had in 1988 published a book called “Discover Dannon – 50 Fabulous Recipes With Yogurt.” In the case, Meredith alleged that Publications International, Ltd. (we’ll call them PIL) copied many of the recipes from their Dannon book and printed in them in various publications (some of them copying up to 22 recipes). How similar were the recipes? Well, although not identical, the court (rather humorously for judges) stated: “it doesn’t take Julia Child or Jeff Smith to figure out that the PIL recipes will produce substantially the same final products as many of those described in DISCOVER DANNON.”
There are cases where someone tries to 'sell' the idea of the certified recipe, eg making certified Neapolitan pizza. According to the link, the person in question is not really certifying the product - he is trying to certify the process, namely because he lives and works far away from the place where the product he is trying to certify originates, and he wants to market his product as 'the real thing'. There are EU-funded projects going on where people are involved in writing up 'specifications for traditional Greek recipes' ("συγκεκριμενοποίηση συνταγών") where they describe the exact quantity and origin of each ingredient in a recipe, but that in no way certifies a recipe. Someone else somewhere else will be cooking the 'same' recipe in a different way."

As a long-time food blogger, this kind of reply was not difficult for me to write.

"But that's not enough," I was told, "I want to provide (that more important person) with a solution!"

A solution? Really?! Some people can't take no for an answer. If there were one, it wouldn't be provided by the simple food blogger. It would be given by a team of experts who have been funded to work long term on such a project, backed up by legal representation who will irrefutably, once and for all, decide what a traditional recipe is. I think it would be much easier to find that needle hiding somewhere in the haystack.

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