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Recipe Plagiarism: How to avoid it and how to credit recipes
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.
- Copying any recipe verbatim and signing your name to it is plagiarism. So is using someone else's photo without giving proper credit.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- If you've really put your personal spin on a recipe or come up with it on your own, then it becomes yours.
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
How to credit it
It popped out of your head
As yours or not at all
It's a family recipe or an old recipe whose origins are long lost
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
As yours or not at all
You start with someone else's recipe but you tweak it a bit
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
Cite your source or at least don't call it yours.
You adapt a recipe from a cookbook
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)
You could always try "Courtesy of yours truly, a content thief and a plagiarist who deserves to be tarred and feathered"