This arrived in my inbox today:
I’m concerned about the copyright information published on your blog in your second contest for a glittery copy of the new YA Sunshine. I’m an attorney. I work in copyright fairly often, and I published a scholarly article on United States copyright law in the Journal of the Copyright Society a few years ago. I cannot offer and am not offering you legal advice (and I know nothing about UK copyright, except useless trivia: it started with the Statute of Anne in the 1700s), but as a matter of general reference: 1) for a host of reasons, recipes themselves cannot be copyrighted in the United States; 2) the individual and distinct language used to describe a recipe or a cooking technique can be copyrighted; 3) there is no magic number of tweaks (like three changes) that will protect you from a copyright violation; and 4) something does NOT need to be published OR to have a copyright notice at the bottom to be copyrighted. Technically, whenever you compose your own unique description of a cooking technique (or draw a picture or whatever) on an index card, it has copyright protection, and you can register it with the US Copyright Office and then sue anyone who copies it. So the idea that recipes can be copyrighted (and thus that most food bloggers working from cookbooks are intellectual property thieves, which they are not) and the idea that you need only worry about copyright if you copy from a published cookbook are both inaccurate under US copyright law.
That said, it’s very smart to have it as part of your individual rules that the recipe must be customized by the submitter. Even though changes in a recipe’s substance are not required by US copyright law, it means that nothing you get will be copied verbatim. Also, it does not seem likely that someone would be sued for copying a recipe if they made three changes to the language used to describe the recipe (even though it could happen, especially if the changes were insignificant – e.g., changing “t.” to “tsp.” – and the portion quoted was large). People lose music sampling cases all the time because of the musician’s belief in some magic-number copyright myth (it’s okay to take less than five seconds, etc.). Anyway, because you are posting recipes on your blog, and because copyright is close to your heart (or at least your wallet), I thought I would try to clarify some general information regarding the rules on this side of the Atlantic.
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I’m not a lawyer, let alone a copyright lawyer. I haven’t got a clue. But the three-tweaks guideline was passed on to me as advice from a lawyer–as a guideline, not as a hard and fast unbreakable law cast in cement along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, but–apparently this should have been made more emphatic–yes the tweaks do have to be substantive.
So just be sure your recipes are yours, okay? The ones I saw earlier all looked pretty real. I could just about see the splatters and the Notes to Self in the margins.
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