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Recipe Plagiarism: How to avoid it and how to credit recipes

Updated on December 5, 2012
As far as I can tell... the original cookie in a cup
As far as I can tell... the original cookie in a cup | Source

Cookie in a cup

A few months ago I stumbled across a great, and what I thought was a recently published recipe on the web for a single microwave chocolate chip cookie in a cup, with a gorgeous photo. I wrote a raving review, which I now regret, and began following the writer's other recipes.

For a couple of days I remained in admiration of the author's prolific recipe production and versatile style. Too prolific and too versatile, I began to suspect. I went back to the cookie in a cup, which I'd bookmarked, and did a quick check on the photo in google images. Not surprisingly, it turned up on someone else's blog.

Not only had the "author" lifted the photo without putting a backlink to the blogger's original post, she copied the recipe word for word, then had the gall to claim it was her grandmother's recipe! The plagiarism was so blatant that I dropped her like a hot potato. As a recipe writer I was so annoyed that I debated over whether to confront her with it. Eventually I decided to write about it instead...

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Should only original recipes be published online?

After thinking about it, the cookie in a cup incident led me to wonder "Should all recipes published online be original?"

This is a tough one. What is original? Obviously, if a recipe has been in your family for generations, or you've been making it for so long you forget where it came from, you can claim it as yours. But sometimes it's very hard to determine the originality of a recipe. I remember my aunt giving me a handwritten recipe card for German chocolate cake to copy down. As she handed it to me she solemnly said "Careful, don't lose Granma's recipe." Years later I realized it was the same exact recipe that appears on Baker's chocolate. That's one I'll never post.

Sometimes it seems like ideas arise in space just waiting to be plucked, and are often plucked by several people simultaneously. They say that sitting in a patent office waiting room next to Alexander Graham Bell was another gentleman who was there to register his new invention: the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell just happened to get there first.

Even if recipes are not floating around in the ethers, there are only a limited number of possible food combinations, and given the number of people out there combining foods, there are bound to be two doing the same thing. Moreover, we can't live our lives reinventing the wheel.

But none of us (okay, well, some of us maybe) want to be guilty of plagiarism. Like I replied to Mark's question, it's a matter of karma.

Recipe credit guidelines

So perhaps the better question is just how original the recipes we publish online should actually be? Where do we draw the line? How do we credit them? Below are a few guidelines to keep our own house, or should I say mouse, in order.

  1. Copying any recipe verbatim and signing your name to it is plagiarism. So is using someone else's photo without giving proper credit.
  2. You might get away with using someone else's ingredient list and paraphrasing their instructions, but that's still bad karma, though perhaps less so if you state your source and use your own photos.
  3. Don't do the above at all if it's from someone else's website. It may be their bread & butter. If you really want people to know about the recipe, rave about it and link to it. If it's from a cookbook, state it clearly and write it in review form, don't use more than one recipe from the same book (that's called fair use), and add your own instructions and tips.
  4. If you've adapted something slightly from someone else's recipe, say so, and add a link to the original recipe (or reference if it's a book).
  5. If you've really put your personal spin on a recipe or come up with it on your own, then it becomes yours.

Goat cheese and fig walnut ice cream
Goat cheese and fig walnut ice cream | Source

Writing new recipe ideas the Hollywood way

Recently I was on vacation in the countryside and found myself with lots of figs, white peaches, goat cheese and lavender. It was hot, so I started thinking of the wonderful ice cream combinations I could make out of these ingredients. "Goat cheese ice cream" I thought, "aren't I clever! I'll throw in some figs!" I didn't have Internet so it wasn't until I got home that I realized there are already a plethora of goat cheese ice cream recipes out there (fortunately there wasn't a single recipe for white peach and lavender ice cream!).

So I ended up using a technique that Hollywood screenwriters use. They throw the names of a bunch of successful films, often having nothing to do with each other, pull out a few, and take elements of each to come up with an original screenplay.

That's what I did for my goat cheese and fig recipe. I looked at at least a dozen different recipes. Of course, there weren't that many for goat cheese ice cream, but I drew on others as well. Then I experimented until I got it down the way I like it and hopefully others like it too (mine goes stronger on goat cheese by the way!). I drew on what others had done before me, but the end result is original.

How to credit a recipe: a quick rule of thumb

The recipe
Situation
How to credit it
It popped out of your head
It's yours
As yours or not at all
It's a family recipe or an old recipe whose origins are long lost
It's yours
As yours, your family's or not at all
You've adapted and readapted so many recipes to arrive at yours that you've lost track
It's yours
As yours or not at all
You start with someone else's recipe but you tweak it a bit
Adaptation
Cite your source and a backlink if it's from an online recipe. Use your own original photos.
You start with someone else's recipe but you tweak it a lot and add your own tips
Adaptation
Cite your source or at least don't call it yours.
You adapt a recipe from a cookbook
Adaptation
Try writing it as a cookbook review, use your own photos and don't use more than one recipe from any given book (known as fair usage)
You copy or paraphrase someone else's recipe and/or photo and pretend it's yours (even by ommission)
Plagiarism
You could always try "Courtesy of yours truly, a content thief and a plagiarist who deserves to be tarred and feathered"

Comments: How do you determine how to credit a recipe?

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    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      Because hers had only been posted a few days, and after tracking down the original, it had been on line for a long time and it was perfectly in keeping with everything else on the blog, whereas when I researched the copycat, it turned out she'd copied material & taken photos from websites all over the web.

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      Hi LoveBuglena,

      I wouldn't call that plagiarism, but it is unlikely. What are the chances two cooks will come up with the same lists and quantities of ingredients and the sameinstructions? When we really think something up off the top of our heads, we're pretty safe.

    • lovebuglena profile image

      Lena Kovadlo 4 years ago from Staten Island, NY

      When it comes to recipes we can come up with one at the top of our head, without the use of Google or a cookbook and post it online and than it will turn out that someone else had already thought of this recipe before us using the same ingredients, etc. Would that be considered plagiarism? Just curious...

    • lovebuglena profile image

      Lena Kovadlo 4 years ago from Staten Island, NY

      How do you know that it wasn't the other way around - about the cookie in a cup recipe? Maybe she was the original creator and the other one you found later after googling was the one that stole it? Just trying to figure out what led you to think that...

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      Absolutely Darryl, I'm in total agreement with you on that, all down the line. ;-p

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      Hi Vespawoolf, I was on a roll there for a while, admittedly, but you've outdone me! I know what you mean about finding your invention out there, but I've got a hunch yours is better!

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      Hi Ercramer36, originality is so hard to define, isn't it. I'm glad I could provide some guidelines.

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      I can well imagine it would be a problem with knitting and crochet patterns too, Vintagetreasures. I just can't understand how people can actually claim something as their own when it isn't. The least they could do is say nothing at all. I guess it's like the cattle barons of old, rebranding whatever cattle they find on the range as their own.

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      Thanks Mark, for the compliment and for giving rise to the question. I'll be keeping my eye out for more questions from you like this!

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      Southernmapart, you're right. There are only so many ingredients available to us wherever it is we live, and only so many ways to combine them. And yet, sometimes a small difference is all it takes to set a recipe apart. At least that's what we all strive for!

    • profile image

      Southernmapart 5 years ago

      Good article on an important issue. With respect to copies of recipes, many recipes will have similar ingredients. I read recipes from different writers for the same type of cake, for example, looking for new methods of mixing and handling the ingredienrs and serving the dish. I agree that a personal twist is a new recipe.

    • Mark McClean profile image

      Mark McClean 5 years ago from South Bend, Indiana USA

      "Recently I was on vacation in the countryside and found myself with lots of figs, white peaches, goat cheese and lavender."

      What a great sentence! All kinds of images come to mind.

      Well constructed article in answer to my question. It is refreshing to find out there are many honest Hubbers out there trying to do the right thing and helping others as well.

    • Vintagetreasures profile image

      Terri 5 years ago

      Great hub and good guide. The same problem exists with knitting and crochet patterns. People claim them as theirs without giving credit to an original source or realizing that someone makes income on the pattern. I once saw a pattern on Etsy that the seller claimed was hers alone. I knew it wasn't as it was the first scarf I'd ever knitted. I dug out the original, published pattern and she'd even used their picture!

    • ercramer36 profile image

      Eric Cramer 5 years ago from Chicagoland

      Great hub! I always wondered if all of the recipes were original. Plagerism is a huge peoble. Thank you for explaining how to properly write recipe hubs.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      You're on fire! Another great hub. This is a delicate issue and no one would want to be guilty of plagiarism. I like your concluding checklist. I remember when I "invented" horchata ice cream, I was disappointed when a google search revealed it had already been done. Of course, there weren't many recipes for it out there but it seems there is nothing new anymore. Still, we can add our own flare and make it our own.

    • Darrylmdavis profile image

      Darrylmdavis 5 years ago from Brussels, Belgium

      A neat hub...and a valid question. I would rather liken it to the what Billy Collins once referred to as the problem in poetry: " that it encourages the writing of more poetry". It simply gets harder and harder to have an "original idea" within a defined (and sometimes confined) space.

      The solution - aside from blunt plagiarism - is simple enough: redefine "original" and accept a few broad realities. And then all is well. :-)

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 5 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      I totally agree with you MarleneB. It's just common courtesy. "Do unto others" right? Thank you for coming by to comment.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 5 years ago from Northern California, USA

      Like you mentioned, there are only so many food combinations we can use when "creating" a recipe. I think providing the source and giving full credit always is the wisest thing to do. I mean, if I received my inspiration from another source, yet tweaked it a little here and there, the original recipe may be a little different, but it is still curteous to give credit where credit is due. This is an excellent hub for food writers.

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 5 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      "Copying" is indeed the term internpete. How many lasagna recipes are out there? It only becomes a problem when someone has consciously copied someone else's recipe, ingredients, instructions, etc. outright, as if it was their own. Thanks so much for the vote and share.

    • Letitialicious profile image
      Author

      Letitialicious 5 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      How funny, as you must have been writing this, I was editing my first recipe video (just published), and here you mention yours (saw it, great by the way). Mark asked a great question and the answer isn't easy. Basically, I think give credit where credit is due is the thing. It doesn't hurt to say I adapted this from Southern Living, or whatever. It can even lend clout. However if it's something really basic that's already out there all over the place, like blue cheese filled dates that you've been doing by heart forever, I don't think you need to, even if it appears in Martha Stewart! Of course I'm no expert. I've just been doing some thinking myself. Thanks a lot for the thumbs up and share.

    • internpete profile image

      Peter V 5 years ago from At the Beach in Florida

      This was a very good look at an interesting gray area on hubpages. I don't write many recipe hubs (only 1 so far!) But this question had come to my mind as I saw a few people who 'wrote' very plain recipes. I thought, copying a recipe has to be against hp tos, but there seems to be quite a few unoriginal recipes floating around. So thanks for clearing this up for me, and I hope others will also better understand this! Voted up and shared.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Oh gosh, Letitia, I read Mark's question also and your response, which led to your profile page and then here...

      I read this with curiosity and interest and then the full blown, "yikes!" I never thought of that...However, to credit my gradual enlightenment on this subject I have recently been researching key words for a great appetizer that I planned on sharing. One thing led to the other last night and I discovered this recipe as the first one listed on google search with Southern Living as the source. The three that followed were, as you state here, exact replicas and one, with photo intact, no credit to its source. They were on blogs. It's hard, as my daughter and I discussed this morning, to do any tracking and correcting of plagiarized recipes on all of the blogs out there.

      This all occurred in the wee hours of 1 and 2 a.m. before I gave up and closed the computer down. There was an obvious hint of 'doing what's right' in the midst of the egoic urgency to get it out there ASAP. Flash forward to the REINFORCER: Mark's question followed by your response and this hub.

      Initially, I wanted to say: "Humphhh, of course all recipes aren't original; well...they're original at one time or another!" But, your response and hub have confirmed what has been buzzing somewhere in the back of my head and heart.

      I find this hub and your explanation very helpful and the little guide an easy one to follow. Hopefully, I will still post the 'variation' of the snack I intended to write about (it is delicious and quick to make), crediting those who provided it to us in the correct way.

      I appreciate your concern and wake up call to all who write food hubs. Incidentally, my video recipe Peach Pie with pecans was one of those Hollywood moments. (I hope). In the end...your hub has given me 'food for thought' regarding the issues of plagiarism in recipe form. Great job and wonderful Hub site. Rated this up /U/I and intend to share this important hub.