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How to Copyright a Recipe: Recipe Attribution

Updated on May 1, 2013
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Vespa's recipes have appeared in "Midwest Living" & "Taste of Home" magazines. She belongs to "Cook's Recipe Testers" for Cooks Illustrated.

Cookbooks are full of copyrighted recipes
Cookbooks are full of copyrighted recipes | Source

How to Copyright a Recipe

“If it wasn't for people sharing recipes, mankind would not have survived.” ~ Laurie Colwin, Food Writer


Families pass down recipes from generation to generation. Recipes have been printed on cereal boxes, cocoa tins, oatmeal cans—you get the picture—for decades. All recipes originate somewhere. So how do you know when a recipe has been plagiarized?

Speaking strictly of legalities, note the following quote from the Copyright Office of the U.S. Government:

"Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, where 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."

A list of ingredients cannot be copyrighted. But what about the rest of the recipe? That is open to debate. However, copying a recipe word-for-word would most definitely fall into the realm of plagiarism. Between cooks, though, the issue at stake is not so much legality as respect.

According to David Lebovitz, renowned pastry chef and cookbook author, there are three rules of thumb followed by food writers:

  1. If your recipe is a slightly modified version of someone else’s recipe, you should qualify it as “adapted from”.
  2. If your recipe is still similar to an original recipe, use the label “inspired by” and then acknowledge the recipe from which you drew inspiration.
  3. If you change more than 3 ingredients, use your own methods to combine those ingredients and then rewrite the instructions in your own words, you can call the recipe yours.

If in doubt, always provide attribution. You should include a link to the recipe’s website or, if from a cookbook, where it is sold on the internet.

A similar principle applies to all online publishing. For example, I read David Lebovitz's "Recipe Attribution" while researching this subject. Would you call my article original, or should it be attributed to Lebovitz?


Moist Chocolate Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting & Cherry Ganache
Moist Chocolate Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting & Cherry Ganache | Source

When Can a Recipe Be Called "Original"?

The answer is somewhat subjective. It has been said there are no new recipes, just reinventions of what has already been done. Hundreds, even thousands of basic recipes have been published for apple pie, chocolate cake, chicken soup, etc. Recipes considered "basic" are fair game since many variations exist and similarities are bound to arise.

Case in point: Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" chocolate cake. This recipe has been around for decades and there are many recognizable versions on the internet. You can find it on foodnetwork.com as Barefoot Contessa's "Beatty's Chocolate Cake". On allrecipes.com it's called "Extreme Chocolate Cake". I adapted it for my Moist Chocolate Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting & Cherry Ganache Filling. In most cases, you won't find any attribution to Hershey's. Why? Each cook writes his or her own instructions and pairs the cake with a unique frosting. Chocolate cake is also considered a "basic" recipe and thus fair game.

There are some exceptions. For instance, if you are using an innovative technique borrowed from a specific chef, he or she should receive the credit. Just remember to follow your gut feeling. Be honest, respect the work of others and give credit where credit is due.


How Can You Create Your Own Recipes?

What sparks your creativity? Do you draw inspiration from ingredients? If so, a stroll through the local farmer's market might be enough to get the creative juices flowing. Or browse one of the many great photo-driven food "porn" sites out there like TasteSpotting and Zenspotting. You might leaf through a colorful cookbook or eat at your favorite restaurant before attempting a new dish. Reading recipes will also train you in proper proportions and combinations of ingredients. But recipes should just be a starting point. The ingredients and your taste preferences will dictate where creativity leads you.

Now that you have an idea of the dish you’d like to create, put away the cookbooks and experiment with the following steps:

  1. Make a list of the main ingredients you plan to use, depending on what is available. Try building your recipes around seasonal produce to guarantee the highest quality ingredients.
  2. Ask yourself: Which herbs or spices would best complement the main ingredients? Which flavors will be prominent in this dish? Sweet or sour, salty or spicy? Try to reach a pleasing balance of flavors, and don’t forget to consider texture.
  3. Visualize the steps you’ll take and the appearance of the final product. You may want to number the steps, mentally “cooking” before even heading to the kitchen.
  4. Now that you're ready to cook, take along a notepad and pen. Jot down measurements as you create and take detailed notes of the procedures you follow.
  5. Don’t forget to take photos to document the process. You may end up publishing some of them along with the recipe.
  6. What would best finish the dish? Consider sauces or seasoning blends that might add the ultimate final touch.

Most of all, have fun! Cooking is all about the creative process and should be enjoyable. Would you like more inspiration to create recipes? How about in-depth information and methods to create your own recipes? Learn the answers in the following articles:

Now I hear the kitchen calling!


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  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Very useful and informative hub!

    In case of recipes it is really difficult to understand which one is original and which is not. Great explanation in this hub to clarify. Some recipes are all about the method of preparation rather than the ingredients.

    Thank you---Pinning and sharing on HP!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    CraftytotheCore, I wish you success in compiling and publishing your cookbook! Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    PegCole, I'm glad you found this information useful. It's true that recipes can be made special by a unique combination of ingredients or a preparation method. Some chefs are even known for their methods rather than the way they combine ingredients. Thank you for dropping by.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    Moonlake, thank you for sharing this topic with others. I think it's an important one, especially for those of us who publish recipes on HubPages. It's always nice to hear from you!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    Crystal Tatum, I appreciate your meaningful comment. I agree that cooking is a creative process and credit should go where it is due. I wish you success in all your endeavors here on HubPages!

  • CraftytotheCore profile image

    CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

    This is such a useful and interesting Hub. I have some recipes passed down to me. One day I was planning on creating a cookbook from them. I wasn't sure how any of this worked. Thank you for sharing this knowledge.

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

    Great explanation to clear up the mystery. Some recipes are all about the method of preparation rather than the ingredients. Your explanation has cleared up a lot for me. Thank you.

  • moonlake profile image

    moonlake 4 years ago from America

    Had to stop by and share this information with followers. It's all so useful.

  • Crystal Tatum profile image

    Crystal Tatum 4 years ago from Georgia

    This is a very helpful hub. I recently posed a question about this topic and was referred here. After reading this hub, and my own research, I now have a good handle on how to proceed. I definitely agree that, whatever the legalities, it all boils down to respect. I wouldn't want someone to copy my writing without giving me credit. Recipe creation is a creative work of art, in my opinion. Voting up and more and sharing.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    Thelma Alerts, I'm glad you found this informative. I wrote it in answer to my own questions and doubts. I appreciate the vote! Have a great week.

  • Thelma Alberts profile image

    Thelma Alberts 4 years ago from Germany

    What an informative hub! I have been wondering about this, too. Thanks for clearing me up. Voted up and more. Have a nice week Vespa!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    GoldenThreadPress (Deb): We all need inspiration and it sounds like you create come delicious recipes! I also enjoy the famous TV chefs. They're usually entertaining and it's inspirational just to watch them cook. Thank you for paying me a visit and taking the time to comment. : )

  • profile image

    GoldenThreadPress 4 years ago

    Voted Up! and thanks for the information! I make and create a lot of recipes. I take my inspiration from those beloved chefs I see on television or read. I don't want to disrespect their work, but when I know I have done something different, I want to share my recipe(s) with everyone. Thanks for the thorough coverage. Best Regards--Deb

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    WiccanSage, this is a question often pondered but there's no doubt, even on the internet there's no room for plaigarized material. Of course, some recipes are considered basic and every chef has their own version of them, but others are definitely unique and should be given proper attribution. Thanks for your meaningful comment.

  • WiccanSage profile image

    Mackenzie Sage Wright 4 years ago

    This is great to know, the internet has certainly created a mess when it comes to intellectual property. I've seen my own writings outright plagiarized and had people tell me it's fair because they found it on a free website, or because 'nothing is original anymore'. This is a great reminder that there is nothing wrong with being inspired by other people's work, as long as we attribute it fairly. Even recipes-- I like to change them up and have often wondered at what point I could consider them my own. This clears that up for me. Great hub.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    FreezeFrame, it was right during the contest that I started researching this subject. Of course, a lot of it is just good manners. A real cook would never want to copy someone else's recipes! Good grief! Where's the creativity in that?? Thank you for coming by.

  • FreezeFrame34 profile image

    FreezeFrame34 4 years ago from Charleston SC

    Great thought-provoking hub!

    I wondered a lot about this during the recipe contest! I thought the whole point of the contest was to get creative, but a lot of people were copying recipes straight off of other sites and cookbooks.

    This information is great to reference! When in doubt, cite!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    PeggyW, I also found it interesting that the ingredient list can't be copyrighted. Proportions have to be just right, especially for baked goods, so some recipes can't vary too much. Still, it's what the cook does with the recipe that makes it unique. I do try to give attribution if I know where the original recipe came from, but as you say many old recipes are hard to pinpoint. Thanks for your meaningful comment and votes!

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

    This is a very interesting subject and I found it useful. It is interesting that the simple listing of ingredients cannot be copyrighted. My husband and I often do create our own recipes only using general guidelines of others through the years. Many of the "old timey" recipes dating back to my grandmother's time...I would have no idea what might have inspired the "original" recipe...particularly with a "pinch" of this or that being given as directions. Up votes and sharing.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    Michael, how could I ever forget your Blue Cheese Stilton Pear & Nut Quick Quiche? It really is unique, and although pear and blue cheese are sometimes paired, I've rarely seen a recipe like yours on the internet. It truly is your creation and you should be proud of it! Google the ingredients and you'll see that what I say it true. : ) Yes, you're right about the issues raised. It's mostly a matter of good manners. BTW, I'm not a trained Chef, just a home chef. But I do enjoy cooking and creating recipes. We learn so much by experience and a good mentor or two along the way never hurts. Thanks for coming by!

  • molometer profile image

    molometer 4 years ago from United Kingdom

    This was an interesting read and thanks for shedding some light on this copyright minefield.

    I think that many of the issues raised here, are a matter of just good manners.

    Where we get our inspiration from, should be acknowledged.

    I adapted a recipe from the TV Chefs (the Hairy Bikers)

    Although the recipe hub I produced had departed considerably from the original recipe.

    I still stated where I got the idea from. They inspired it and therefore deserved mention.

    I know that you are a Chef and have read and commented on my hub titled:- Recipes for Blue Cheese Stilton Pear and Nut Quick Quiche

    Maybe you could cast your eye over it again, and tell me if I have invented something new? It would be nice to think that I have. : )

    It is a weird combination but tastes great.

    Thanks tweeting.

    Michael

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    Maralexa, thank you for coming by! It really is important information for those who write recipes.

  • Maralexa profile image

    Marilyn Alexander 4 years ago from Vancouver, Canada and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

    I too have wondered about this issue. Thanks for an excellent hub. Well done!!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    Donnah, it is an important subject especially for those of us who write recipes. Please let me know when you link so I can check it out! Thanks so much.

  • donnah75 profile image

    Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

    Thanks for sharing this important info. Plagiarism is rampant today, so having clarity about the legal definition is important for all writers. I will be linking to your hub from some of mine if that is ok with you. Voted up!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    I know from your hubs that you're a great cook, DeborahNeyens. Research and using your own knowledge and expertise to improve the dish is the best method, in my humble opinion. : ) Thank you for taking the time to read and comment!

  • DeborahNeyens profile image

    Deborah Neyens 4 years ago from Iowa

    This is a really great hub. I rarely follow a recipe exactly and almost always end up changing ingredients or using a different cooking method. My typical approach is to look at 3 or 4 recipes to get some ideas and then create my own version. So while I'm generally confident in calling a recipe my own creation, it's very helpful to have these guidelines.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    Beingwell, I'm glad you found this useful. I enjoy your recipes, so I can vouch for the dishes you make at home!

  • beingwell profile image

    beingwell 4 years ago from Bangkok

    Shared and voted up. I find this read very useful, especially for me who often shares recipes and dishes that I do at home. Great hub!!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    MargaritaEden, I'm glad you found this helpful! I also enjoyed researching for it. Thank you for coming by!

  • MargaritaEden profile image

    MargaritaEden 5 years ago from Oregon

    I always wondered about this topic, thank you for clearing it up for me, very useful info!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Crystal Tatum, I'm glad this was informative and I hope to see some recipes from you in the future! : )

  • Crystal Tatum profile image

    Crystal Tatum 5 years ago from Georgia

    Great hub, very informative and helpful. I've refrained from publishing recipes thus far because I'm not a very inventive cook, and I have concerns about copyright. Voted up and useful.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Susanm23b, I'm glad you found this interesting. I plan to refer back to it in the future if ever a doubt arises. Thank you for taking the time to read!

  • profile image

    susanm23b 5 years ago

    This is a very interesting subject to me. I have often wondered where to "draw the line" between where someone else's recipe ended and my changes began. Very informative!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Yes, recipes have been around for a long time and who knows where many of them came from? I'm glad you enjoyed the information. Thanks for coming by, Moonlake!

  • moonlake profile image

    moonlake 5 years ago from America

    I didn't know all of this. I have no idea where many of my recipes came from. Some my Mom gave me but I don't know where she got them. Good information. Voted uP!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Jackie, I'm glad it was informative. Thank you for paying a visit!

  • Jackie Lynnley profile image

    Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

    I have often wondered about this, so good to know. Thank you.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Simplysmartmom, thank you for your nice comment. I hope this information will inspire you to write more recipes!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    2patricias, thanks so much for the link. There's a lot of potential for recipes on HP. I can't complain, although my views have dropped recently. I appreciate your comment!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    BarbaraKay, thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    MamaKim, thanks so much for the vote and share. It was fun to research for this article and now I have it all down in writing, too. : ) It's always nice to hear from you!

  • simplysmartmom profile image

    simplysmartmom 5 years ago from North Carolina

    Thank you so much for writing this hub! I have been wondering about this and thus have hesitated writing recipe articles because I didn't really know the rules - I have printed your article for reference! Great information!

  • 2patricias profile image

    2patricias 5 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

    This is great advice. I am very interested in recipes on HubPages. I will try to add a link to this from one of my hubs.

    Voted up!

  • Barbara Kay profile image

    Barbara Badder 5 years ago from USA

    This is a good explanation on giving credit to the original source. Good job!

  • Mama Kim 8 profile image

    Sasha Kim 5 years ago

    Fantastic hub Vespa!! Perfectly said and all bases covered ^_^ Voting this a bunch and sharing!!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Alocsin, you've hit the nail on the head. Good tasting food is what we all strive toward! Thanks for taking the time to read, comment and vote.

  • alocsin profile image

    alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

    This is quite a useful hub for those who specialize in recipe hubs. As for me, the origins of a recipe are not as important as the taste. Voting this Up and Useful.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    I'm glad you enjoyed it for a future reference. I also printed out your inner beauty quotes. : ) We need more positive reinforcements in our lives! Thanks so much for coming by.

  • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

    Susan Haze 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Great information. I am printing it out for reference. Up, useful and interesting.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Making a recipe healthier is one way to make it your own. All recipes come from somewhere. I think these are good guidelines to follow. If in doubt, you can always say it was "inspired by" so-and-so, although if it has been changed substantially then it's probably not necessary. Thank you for coming by, Hyphenbird.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    This is great information. Sometimes I get inspiration from a regular recipe and make it vegan through hard thought and trial and error. I have wondered if I should attribute the original but since I change it so much, it might be original. Thank you.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    JSParker, I'm glad you liked this information. I also enjoyed researching the subject and feel like I can forge onward with a clear conscience! I have two more hubs in the works regarding recipe creation and flavor combinations, so please keep an eye out for them. I look forward to seeing your new recipe creations in the next recipe contest!

  • JSParker profile image

    JSParker 5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

    I love this hub! It's like you are reading my mind. These are questions I've struggled with, even foregoing entering the recipe contest because I didn't have the issue of attribution worked out to my satisfaction. You are a good writer.

    More than that, you are inspiring me to tackle the next level of cooking. I've been practicing at a greater level of intensity for a couple of years, but I do try to stay close to the recipes. I'd like to understand spices better to be able to make more creative forays into cooking.

    Excellent work. Voted up and awesome!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    DeborahBrooks, I'm glad you enjoyed the information. I enjoyed researching the subject, as well. Thanks for visiting me!

  • Deborah Brooks profile image

    Deborah Brooks Langford 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

    wow I love to cook.. what great useful information.. thank you for sharing this

    I am sharing on cooking page on Facebook

    Debbie

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    marked4destiny, I'm glad you enjoyed the read. Thanks for your comment!

  • profile image

    marked4destiny 5 years ago

    Great Hub and thanks for the info/quote from the copyright office.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    It seems plagiarism will always exist, and especially on the web where it's easy to pull off. I guess it boils down to respecting others and writing what you know. If a writer copies a recipe and hasn't even attempted it in their own kitchen, then shame on them! And they're missing out on the opportunity to sharpen their cooking skills. Millionaire Tips, thank you for coming by and sharing your personal experience.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    I'm glad you like the article, JustAskSusan! It is a valid question and it felt good to do further research on the subject and find some solid answers. I really appreciate David Lebovitz's balanced outlook on the issue. I'm sure his work has been copied often! Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

  • Millionaire Tips profile image

    Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

    I saw a recipe once for some cookies that used a brand name of coffee. As I read the recipe, I couldn't figure out if I was supposed to use the coffee grounds dry, or actually make the coffee. It seemed like it would be too dry without the water, but it was a lot of coffee to use wet. I searched for the recipe name to see if anyone had made it and could provide more input. I found five copies of the same recipe, all without attribution, and all, it seems, without the person presenting it having made it at all. This copyright thing can be complicated, but it seems that some people don't care at all that they are copying something word for word, without knowing for sure that it is a good recipe!

  • Just Ask Susan profile image

    Susan Zutautas 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    I saw this question in the feed yesterday and I'm so happy to see that you've written a hub from it. Great job!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Suzie HQ, I would be honored if you adapted any of my recipes. : ) As usual, your comment made me laugh aloud! You are hilarious. This hub was in response to a question posed in the forum, and it is a valid one. I look forward to your recipes! I can hardly wait and will keep an eye out. Thanks for paying me a visit today.

  • Suzie HQ profile image

    Suzanne Ridgeway 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

    Hi vespa,

    Great idea to write this as it is such a popular niche here!! It is something I was wondering as I want to do some recipe hubs but was not quite sure on accreditation. Well researched my friend and well explained in easy to understand lingo!

    Watch out for my hubs with" inspired by" or" adapted by" vespawoolf !!!! LOL - only joking my friend, I love your recipes just the way they are and wouldn't dream of changing!!!!!

    Voted up more and sharing :-)

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    How nice your daughter inherited your talent and went on to get formal training! No wonder you like food writing. : ) It's nice to see you again, Mhatter.

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

    Very enjoyable article. Thank you. I used to enjoy cooking. That joy now lives on in a "big shot" chef... my daughter.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Well thank you, billybuc, and congratulations to you for a beautiful interview published in the newsletter! I've been planning to head over to pay you a visit soon. Thanks for coming by.

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Ptrg777, thank you for the nice compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed the subject.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Okay, that's something I never thought of, but it makes good sense. Obviously someone had to think of the original recipe, right? In this world of copyrights and legalities, I think your hub is quite valuable. Good job and quite original my friend!

  • ptrg777 profile image

    Peter 5 years ago from New York

    Very useful Hub no to mention a very interesting read. Thanks!

  • vespawoolf profile image
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    vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

    Thanks, GlimmerTwinFan. It's good to have the information in printed form and I'll use it in the future for reference, too. I appreciate the comment!

  • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

    Glimmer Twin Fan 5 years ago

    Useful hub! I've often wondered about this since recipes are passed down and around. Many times I don't know where they are from. The quote you provided is perfect!