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October 18, 2007
Too Many Cooks Spoil The Copyright?
Attributor, which I wrote about last month, has put out a study demonstrating its software's ability to find and match content. The ostensible point of the study is to show how recipes from popular cooking sites get copied around, and the study got a big writeup by Jennifer Guevinin the CNET blog.
The gist isn't terribly surprising - recipes get copied around a lot. Anyone who has ever been in the restaurant business knows that innovations are often quickly scooped up and duplicated. I've known chefs to dine at competitor's places while in disguise, to plant employees into rival chefs' kitchens, and other dirty tricks. So copying a recipe that someone posts on the Web is not a big shock.
There is real money involved here, in that some sites charge fees to access online recipes and many sites depend on traffic. If a copy of a site's recipe gets higher rankings on a Google search then it may divert traffic from the originator. All of which brings us back around to the question of what constitutes fair use. As I noted in the original discussion of Attributor, one of their major claims is to provide a platform on which such conversations may be constructed..
Recipes are particularly tricky to think about, as they're combinations of a fairly limited set of ingredients in fairly standardized ways. If I'm going to whip egg whites for my cake I'm likely to do it in one of about four ways, all of which are well-known. There are good physical chemistry reasons why I have to whip the whites and then fold in other ingredients - I can't simply reorder the steps. It's pretty clear that a simple list of ingredients isn't protected by copyright. Even if I find a new combination of spices to make my cake amazing, just listing that combination isn't enough to qualify.
Beyond that, cooking is very much a derivative art. Recipes and techniques get copied all OVER the place. Chefs learn their trades through long apprenticeships and often start by making close copies of things they learned from their mentor chefs, but with their own variations added. Attributor may be doing a good job of showing off its technology here but they're not adding anything to the discussion about what is or is not fair use of a recipe.
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