Monday, May 7, 2012

The Butcher, The Baker, the Blogger ~ Copyright & You

May marks the second month of the Food Bloggers Network. After our first month together I gushed like a kid with a crush about how much I adore this group of bloggers. Today, however, I'd like to discuss a serious and fundamental topic that touches all food bloggers: copyright. Before we get started let's remember that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. It is, I hope, reasonably well-researched information meant to inform and guide the reader to appropriate resources. When in doubt, consult a real-live-in-the-flesh lawyer who specializes in copyright law.

All food bloggers - whether or not you are well-known, popular, or successful - are bound by the laws of copyright. It applies to anyone who writes in a public forum (be it a Facebook page, a recipe share site, a book, an e-book, or a blog). Copyright infringement has come up twice in the last month to FBN members. But what is copyright? How do you protect your work? How do you prevent yourself from infringing on another person's copyright? Where does copyright end and blogging etiquette begin? It sounds like a lot to research, understand, and follow but in reality it's much easier than redesigning your website (branding, coding, um... yeah... I'll leave that for another day!) and honestly follows a lot of the same guidelines as basic common sense.

What is Copyright?
The key to everything is understanding copyright. When I first started researching the topic of copyright for this post I was astounded at the number of people who accidentally misinterpreted or (worse) willfully twisted copyright law to suit their needs. At it's heart copyright is a form of Intellectual Property Law.

Per the United States Copyright Office copyright is defined as:
[...] a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

For food bloggers, the moment you hit "publish post" your work is fixed in a tangible form and is protected by copyright. You are not required to further register the work, although you may wish to do so. 

Now, let's talk about some important points for food bloggers: recipes and originality. Just because you write something down does not mean it is protected by copyright. There is a big word in the definition of copyright that often gets overlooked: original. The US Copyright Office has this to say about originality: Only original works of authorship are protected by copyright. “Original” means that an author produced a work by his or her own intellectual effort instead of copying it from an existing work. 

So what constitutes original as it applies to a recipe? A list of ingredients is not considered an original work and is not protected by copyright. Nor can an idea be copyrighted so the mere idea for potato salad (or a new spin on potato salad) is not protected. The originality exists in the way in which you describe how to prepare, assemble, cook, finish, and present the dish. For example:

Potato salad is a family favorite at our summer cookouts. I make my potato salad by boiling and peeling two pounds of potatoes. In a separate bowl I combine chopped onion, chopped hard boiled egg, and mayonnaise. I can still remember Mom leaving the potato salad in the fridge overnight to develop the flavors. "Remember," she'd say, "it's always better the next day."

You don't have to be the person who invented potato salad. You do have to describe the method of preparing the ingredients in an original manner, in your own voice. Copying Martha Stewart's description of how to make potato salad verbatim, and without providing credit, even if you use your own photographs, is an infringement of her copyright. Adding an additional ingredient and closely adapting her words, particularly without giving credit to the source, is not original. At best it's plagiarism.

Prevent Infringement
A Food Bloggers Network member recently discovered that her recipes were being posted, verbatim and without credit, on a public Facebook page about cooking. The owner of the Facebook page simply had no clue that cutting and pasting someone else's work was copyright infringement, possibly due to belief in any one or more of the following myths:

Myth 1: If it's on the internet I can take it. Wrong. You can read it. You can make the recipe at home. You can share the link with friends. You cannot copy and paste the post and claim it as your own, neither by explicitly claiming it as your own nor by implying it's your own by not crediting the source.
Myth 2: If a photo is in Google images, Bing images, Flickr, Pinterest, or any other general site it's fair game for free use. Wrong. This is the same as Myth 1. Just because it's on the internet does not mean you can reuse it on your site, even if you credit the site. If you want to use someone else's photo you will either need to get written permission or pay for the right to use the image.
Myth 3: It's not copyright infringement because it's free. Wrong. If we go back to the definition of copyright it's not about paying for work. The work is copyrighted because it is original and it exists.
Myth 4: It didn't have a copyright notice or a © symbol so it's fair game. Wrong. Remember - it exists therefore it is copyrighted. The original author doesn't need to register the work or precede the work with ©.
Myth 5: It doesn't hurt anyone! Wrong. I won't go into the time and effort that original writers and photographers put into their work; I will simply say if you passed high school you understand the concept of not passing off another's work as your own. And if that isn't enough, just think back to the 2010 Cook's Source controversy. Yowza.

Fortunately the situation with the FBN member and the Facebook page, to the best of my knowledge, was resolved amicably (after some back and forth) and the page now credits the original author(s) and links to their blogs.

Now, if you're freaking out that you use other people's recipes on your blog and are wondering if you've infringed on someone else's copyright take a deep breath and keep reading.

In order to prevent accidental infringement you need to take (at a minimum) the following steps:
1. Credit the original source. I used Martha Stewart's recipe for this potato salad.
2. Link to the original source. You can find Martha's original recipe here [insert link].
3. Re-write the recipe and instructions in your own voice. Talk about why you like the recipe, what you may have done differently, why you made the recipe, etc. Mom never told me her recipe for potato salad, but this one by Martha Stewart [insert link] brings me back to the way I felt as a child when Mom was making potato salad for our 4th of July cookout. The original [insert link] uses white onion, but Mom always used red onions so I substituted red onions. Etc.

Whatever you do, do not cut & paste!

Let's say you adapt recipes. That's fine - but make sure you're not swapping copyright infringement for plagiarism. Plagiarism is closely adapting another person's work and passing it off as your own. In the example above I described switching red onions for white onions. If that was the only change I made I still cannot call that recipe original. I must still give credit to the original source. Even if I also add paprika. Still not mine. In order for a work to be original, rather than derivative or outright plagiarized, it needs to be substantially changed.

The example above refers to adapting a recipe already posted on-line. Personally I would not reproduce a recipe printed in a cookbook without listing (at a minimum) the author, title, and page number of the original recipe even if I modify the recipe. For an example see this post on making a plum tart based on Julia Child's recipes. There is no doubt that credit is given to the original author and that the post is an adaptation of recipes published in a specific book. And you know what, I did substantially change that recipe. But I was inspired by Julia Child and I used her work as my main source material so I am giving credit where credit is due.

Protect Your Copyright
If you've been a conscientious blogger all along, posting original content, photographing your own recipes, providing attribution and credit to other authors and sites when warranted, then you are probably wondering how to protect your own original works.

While it certainly helps to be known in the blogging community as an honest and upstanding foodie citizen, as your readers will alert you when they see your work reproduced elsewhere (as happened recently to another FBN member), you also need to be proactive. One easy thing to do is to join the Neighborhood Watch hosted by Chef Dennis on his site. As you can see by the Neighborhood Watch badge on my site, I am a member. You may also wish to join the Food Bloggers Network, a great group even if I do say so myself.

If you wish you can register your work with the US Copyright Office by filing out forms and paying a fee.

You can also periodically check to see if your work is reproduced online through various websites that scour the internet for your work. One such site is Copyscape. You enter the URL for your blog and it searches the internet for copies of your work. I would love to hear what other folks do, as well!

Blogging Etiquette
There is a lot that goes into blogging etiquette (and I'm still learning, too!) but here are some basic guidelines:

1. Give credit to the original source.
2. Link to the original source.
3. Email the original source letting them know you linked to them/used their recipe. Some people say this is unnecessary but if we're a community, we need to talk to each other. Use your best judgement.
4. If you want the recipe to be seen as original you will need to substantially change it. Even then, it's best to provide attribution.  For more detailed information on recipe attribution I highly suggest reading David Lebovitz's post on the Food Blogger's Alliance. His article helps to delineate between copyright and plagiarism, as well as provides guidelines for how to proceed when linking to someone else's original work.
5. Don't link others' work to recipe share sites. If you really love a recipe email the original blogger and suggest they share it with others on a particular share site. You are not "helping" them or giving them "free advertising." You are infringing on their copyright.
6. When (if) you pin, tweet, post on Facebook, etc be sure to A) follow the blogger first and B) provide credit. For example: Morel Brioche via Oh Cake blog @JessicaHose is how a pin of my work should look on Pinterest. When someone else clicks on the pin, it links back to my page. Credit is provided via the link and within the description.
7. When sourcing inspiration on Pinterest follow the pin back to it's original source and provide credit. Sometimes you get stuck in what I call a "pin loop" where you just go back and forth between two pinners and never get the original site. I don't know what that is, but I don't repin those images.
8. Last but certainly not least: don't use photographs you didn't take unless you have written permission from the owner and/or you purchased them specifically for use on your blog. As previously discussed in Myth 2 - Bing, Google images, etc and even other photo share sites are not there for public use. They are there for public viewing. It's kind of like when you go to a museum - you can look, but you can't touch.

It's pretty straight forward golden rule kind of stuff. There's a whole lot more that goes into being a conscientious member of the food blogging community (such as commenting on sites), but these are the basics for copyright.

Filing a Report 
What should you do if you find your content posted elsewhere without either your permission or attribution (i.e. giving credit and linking to you)?

The first thing to do is to be polite. You may have an opportunity to educate a fellow blogger and the infringement may be accidental and easily resolved. Don't be rude, inflammatory, or threatening. Simply email the person and say something to the effect of either: I'm pleased you like my potato salad recipe. I noticed you forgot to attribute the recipe to my blog. Please edit your post to include my blog name and a link to the original post.

For something like a photo that is reposted I would be more blunt: You do not have permission to repost my work. Please remove it immediately or provide an address where I may send a bill for my standard licensing fees.

Chef Dennis has some other tips for dealing with copyright infringement here.

You will need to follow up with the site to ensure they address your concerns. If they do not address your concerns you may take the next step of filing a complaint of copyright infringement. You must be the owner of the original work to do this (i.e. your blogger friends cannot do this for you). You will need to file your complaint with the appropriate site. For example, if your site is hosted by Blogger but the copyright infringement occurs on Facebook you need to file the complaint with Facebook.

Before you file a complaint be absolutely certain about what you are doing as you may be found liable for attorney fees and court costs incurred on your behalf. I strongly suggest you contact an attorney if you believe you need to file a complaint. 


Further Reading

If you're new to the Food Bloggers Network (FBN) we are a group of food bloggers dedicated to professional development and networking. Although still in our infancy, I can say without hesitation that I have a much better understanding of the people behind the pretty food pictures and a much clearer vision of myself as a food blogger. If you'd like to learn more about the group please read this post here about who we are and what we do.


  1. Excellent post full of information every blogger, food or otherwise, should know. Thank you for your hard work to research and publish this article.

    1. Thank you, Renee. I really appreciate your kind words.

  2. what a great post Jessica, you really provided a wealth of information on the subject of copyrighting! Thanks for the mention I do appreciate it, and strongly believe that the more of us that are looking out for each other the better. We will never stop theft of our property, but we can certainly slow it down a bit!

    1. Thank you, Chef! You are absolutely right: theft has been around from time immemorial - but we can slow it down!

  3. Well written. I think pretty much everything you've written is applicable in the UK as well as the US, though we have some variations in our legal system here.

  4. Excellent post, thanks for all this info in one place!

  5. Really well written and information post Jessica! I remember going over tons of copyright information when I was studying music business and it was just as dizzying then as it now!

  6. Excellent post! Thank you for sharing this, Jess!

  7. You are truly an amazing woman, Jessica! Setting up the FBN and now sharing this wonderful and useful information with us all in a way that it's understandable. I must admit I knew most of this but it's so nice to just read this and know I... well, knew things. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  8. It's a shame especially that people don't credit others photos and such especially. So many times you'll see pics plucked from a site with NO info. As though everything online is public domain. I just started watermarking my own photos because of this.

    Thanks for re-emphasizing.

  9. Nice post! I think I'll copy this word-for-word and publish it on my own blog! ;-)

  10. Perfect, Jessica!!! I'll be sharing this. So, so happy to be a member of the Food Bloggers Network! That group rocks and you created it!

  11. Thank you! This is really useful for a novice blogger. Hope to chat with you on food bloggers network

  12. Thanks Jess, I'll be sharing as well as bookmarking it for my own reference.

  13. I love this post, you, and our food blogger's network!

  14. Great post! Such helpful info and I'm glad you mentioned Chef Dennis here. He's been a great resource, too and I've mentioned him to other foodie friends.

  15. I wish every blogger out there had to read this post at least once a year as a reminder. I've never understood the reasons behind not giving fair credit. The reader is already at your blog, why not share the love and give credit.
    Thanks for all the valuable info and I'll be checking into some of the links you posted.

  16. Excellent article! Thanks for putting it all into an easy to read format. Simply Gourmet Photography

  17. Thank you for writing about this topic! I learned a lot.

  18. Jessica

    I saw this article via FB, shared by Joan at Chocolate, Chocolate and More.

    I try very hard to make sure to be as respectful as possible and give credit where credit is rightfully due.

    This is an excellent article giving good guidelines. Thank You for your research and sharing what you found out.

  19. Jess, this is wonderful! Well written and full of excellent information. Much I knew, but it's a good reminder for all of us who blog. Thank you!!!!

  20. What an excellent post! Thank you for all of the (very) helpful information. :)

  21. Jess, this is such a good post. I really learned a lot from reading it. Thank you so much.

  22. Great, insightful post! When Chef Dennis posted his piece about the Neighborhood watch, it sparked a very productive discussion regarding how to protect oneself etc. I try to do all those things in my posts to the best of my ability that you speak of, for the some reason that I think it's the right thing to do and b/c I would want others to do the same unto me.

    It beats me how anybody can plead ignorance in such cases. Because the car was open when you took it doesn't make it yours? Why would I want to be known for having hoisted somebody else's content? Thanks once again for being out fearless leader!

  23. This is great info Jessica. I recently had one of my photos stolen by about 20+ sites. It's been a nightmare. I've saved this to read again and make sure I'm doing all I can to protect myself.

  24. This is a very informative post. As much as I hate violators and people that copy, I do realize that it is a never ending battle that you could spend an extensive amount of time on. Which is just part of being in the public eye. Thanks for posting this!

  25. Hi Jessica,

    Excellent article. Thank you for furnishing me an address I need.
    However, there are a few references about "crediting the source" of your recipe and or work I don't understand. Are you saying that you can use/copy someone else's work/recipe as long as you give them credit and a backlink?

    [quote]3. Email the original source letting them know you linked to them/used their recipe[/quote]

    1. Nope, definitely not. As mentioned above at a minimum you would want to credit the source, link to the source, and also rewrite in your own words as well as indicating any changes you might make. You can't cut & paste, even if you credit & link.

      The emailing the original source is a nice touch of etiquette, but not required for copyright.


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