Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Food Fight

Rebecca Charles, the chef at Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village, has sued Ed McFarland of Ed's Lobster Bar in SoHo for appropriating her stuff--her menu, her decor, her table settings. She filed suit yesterday in federal district court against Mr. McFarland, apparently because although others have imitated her, he was once her sous-chef, and that pill is just too bitter to swallow. Mr. McFarland says the restaurants are similar, but not identical. The New York Times reports on the dispute here. One blogpost here.

Whether recipes themselves can be copyrighted is one that scholars have recently started to consider. Christopher J. Buccafusco, University of Chicago Law School, discusses the question in "On the Legal Consequences of Sauces: Should Thomas Keller's Recipes be Per Se Copyrightable?" Here is the abstract.

The restaurant industry now takes in over $500 billion a year, but recent courts have been skeptical of the notion that one of its most valuable assets, original recipes, are subject to copyright protection. With more litigation looming and the contours of the debate insufficiently mapped out, this article establishes the appropriate groundwork for analyzing the copyrightability of recipes. I show that, contrary to recent appellate court opinions, recipes meet the statutory requirements for copyrightability. I argue, by analogizing to musical compositions, that written recipes work to satisfy the fixation requirement of copyright law just as musical notation does for compositions. Accordingly, the “dish” is the final work of authorship, the recipe is the fixation medium, and the various cooking techniques - braising, grilling, sous vide - are the potentially patentable processes. In order to meet copyright law's requirement of originality, though, the work must be deemed expressive. To determine whether and how recipes are expressive, I interviewed some of America's best chefs, each of whom claimed to use recipes to express various ideas and emotions.

Since there are no doctrinal limitations to recipes' copyrightability, in Part II, I offer reasons for the late recognition as protectable works. First, I consider the marginalized status of the sense of taste in the history of Western aesthetic philosophy. For many philosophers, only objects that presented themselves to the eyes and ears, such as music, painting, and literature, could be truly beautiful. Partly out of the fear that fancy foods can lead to gluttony, Western, and more specifically Anglo-American writers have often tried to limit cuisine to its fundamentally nutritive components, further isolating it from the realm of creative expression. Furthermore, the producers of cuisine have been treated no better than their products. Throughout history cooking has been the province of lowly household servants and housewives, with only a select few chefs rising to the status of artisan. Chefs rose from the ranks of obscurity far more slowly than did writers, painters, and musicians. Finally, chefs have a long history of directly copying recipes and dishes from their predecessors, suggesting that the norms of Romantic original authorship formed much later in cuisine than in other arts.

In Part III, I return to the law to consider whether the copyright monopoly should be extended to culinary creations. Chefs are not likely to take serious advantage of copyrights, as the time and money necessary for suit would rarely be worth the benefit. The chefs I interviewed were uncomfortable with the idea of owning their recipes, and they all approved of others using their recipes, subject to certain limits. Increased innovation is also unlikely as a more robust intellectual property regime would likely inhibit chefs' willingness to experiment with other chefs' dishes. Furthermore, the public domain would not see any meaningful increase, because few chefs who currently keep their recipes secret will be persuaded to publish them to obtain the limited benefits of copyright. The article concludes by arguing that formal copyright protection is not necessary for culinary creation, because a vibrant system of social norms already exists to sanction plagiarism, encourage attribution, and reward innovation. Thus, although recipes meet the formal doctrinal requirements of copyright law, an extension of the monopoly is neither necessary nor appropriate at this time.

Download the entire paper from SSRN here. [Cross posted from the Law and Humanities blog.]

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