Cooking is like software – no copyright in the menu

Interesting decision from a first instance court in Liège, Belgium.

Cooking recipes are not covered by copyright. As such, that may not be such a shock.

Imagine having to pay a royalty to the earl of Sandwich every time you reproduce the recipe of .. a sandwich (or worse, every time you make one), or in a more recent setting, pay Jamie Oliver a royalty every time you take off your clothes in the kitchen.

Seriously though, what picked my interest was the fact that the court compared food recipes with software. From the observation that a special law was necessary to apply copyright to software, they concluded that, in the absence of such law for recipes, no copyright exists in the recipe for “Croûtes à l’Orval” and other recipes.

It makes sense, because the recipe (the idea) is not the meal itself (the expression), it’s just an instruction on how to make it. Let’s be serious, the real value of a meal cooked by a chef is not in the menu as such, but  in the pleasure of eating the real thing. That is why you are asked to pay 100 euro for that special steak in a michelin star restaurant.

Translate to software, and you get the old distinction between a function and its expression, or the algorithm and the code. The first is not protected by copyright, the second is.

So it makes perfect sense that chefs make money on their reputation, their face, their name, rather than the content of their recipes. That’s why you can go to Nigella Lawson’s website and download the recipe for her Totally Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies, but you still don’t get that same experience as you get from watching her cook (or indeed, eat) it.

And that, of course, is the way the cookie crumbles in these matters: you need to choose the right Intellectual Property Right for your business! For cooking, as for software.

So, by all means reproduce the recipe. It’s easy. Then try to reproduce the meal and the experience. Good luck and bon appétit!