Skip to main content

How to Use Published Recipes on the Internet

Audrey is a cook who loves creating new flavors by tweaking recipes to include healthier ingredients.

This is a recipe received from Aunt Jane.

This is a recipe received from Aunt Jane.

First, let's examine what a recipe is. In order to define that concept, here are Merriam-Webster's definitions:

  • "A set of instructions for making something from various ingredients.
  • "A formula or procedure for doing or attaining something." (Such as a recipe for success.)

To be clear, if we look at the above two statements, it is important to note that by the term recipe, we might not be only talking about food recipes, but we are also talking about recipes for building a shed, putting together a Christmas wreath, or making a chocolate cake!

There are actually two parts to most recipes—whether they are concerned with food, building something, or a chemical formula—such as a recipe for making bath oil! These two parts are:

  1. The ingredients.
  2. The instructions—the way that you combine the ingredients.

Several questions come to mind then as to these two integral parts of the equation which in fact make up any given recipe—again, it can be a recipe for a cleaning product or it can be a recipe for chicken enchiladas.

Copyright law dictates that the following points are applicable:

  1. The list of ingredients is not copyrighted.
  2. The specific way that someone created the combination of ingredients is not copyrighted.

However, that being said, there are numerous tips and options that writers have if they do want to use recipes for anything. We are talking about recipes that appear in hard-copy cookbooks or manuals, recipes on the Internet or on other folks' blogs, recipes that you see and hear on TV or other audio source, etc.

Also notably, anyone can take a certain list of ingredients and make anything from them—it is important to note that the ingredients themselves that someone comes up with are not the purpose of copyright. The importance of copyright is the way that an individual has discovered to combine these ingredients into a product—whether it is a food item, a desk chair, or a perfume!

The answer to that question is a resounding "No!" There are just ways that we should all probably get used to handling recipes and the copyright issues associated with them. Here are some of the points that I found in my research.

  • First and foremost—attribution—If you are not coming up with a recipe completely on your own, you should give attribution to the source of your find. That really seems only right in my mind and I have always done that. Attribution has many forms!
  • If you are modifying a recipe that you found online or in a cookbook, you should list the ingredients if you wish as listed in the original. Then you should rewrite the instructions as best you can in your own manner so that it is not a carbon copy of the original work. If you have changed or modified the recipe (used name-brand ingredients or changed margarine to butter or something else), you should give attribution this way perhaps: "adapted from."
  • If you completely go off and create/modify the recipe extremely then you should do as above and give an attribution such as "inspired by."
  • Some sources say that if you have added or changed three ingredients, you should be able to call the recipe your own—I would tend to err on the side of caution and still go with one of the attributions above
  • Bottom line—if in doubt, give attribution! Unless you have concocted a recipe in your home kitchen all by yourself—or figured out a way to build a deck chair but used no patterns, prescribed measurements, or any sourcebooks—then probably you've gotten your ideas and measurements from somewhere. Those folks deserve to have attribution in all honesty. If I had a plan for something and posted it on the Internet, I'd really be happy if folks attributed this unique design to me.

How Do We Give Attribution?

  • If you have the source for the recipe that you are adapting, list the attribution somewhere prominently in the article. "I found this recipe in my Better Homes and Gardens 1976 magazine that I have saved all these years."
  • If you obtained your recipe from the Internet and have adapted it, do not copy the recipe verbatim but rather type it in your own words and forms. Use your own images or pictures (from Flickr or public domain) and then attribute the website and the specific recipe if at all possible. Some sites even suggest linking back to the original recipe so that it is plain to everyone that you are not taking credit for the recipe.
  • If you found your recipe on a TV show, give attribution to that recipe. If you go in search of the printed recipe online, of course then you can attribute it that way. However, even giving the name of the program that you watched and got this great recipe from is proper attribution. This could include a gardening show on how to build a planter! Most shows nowadays have the caveat that you can find anything you've watched online at their website or someone's website.
  • If at all possible, link to the source's original recipe or website (in the event that it is a cookbook published by someone).
  • If you can find the book on Amazon or eBay—list it and show it prominently in your article or blog so that you are encouraging the original writer's work to be purchased! This shows good faith.
  • You can always try to get hold of the publisher or owner of the original recipe and ask permission for use through a letter or email!
  • If in doubt, give attribution profusely! If you think it came from 2 sources, give attribution to both. In my humble opinion, giving attribution just makes us look better because it means that we are not taking credit for something that is not ours!
  • Most sources feel that recipes for such things as vinaigrette, chocolate milk, pie crusts, or other "basics" in cooking are not under copyright law simply because they are standards and are listed in millions of sources.
  • Tweaking of recipes should be legit—the recipe should have something truly different about it in its ingredients, addition or deletion, use of a different product, how it was prepared, etc.
Recipe copied from Allrecipes.com

Recipe copied from Allrecipes.com

In the United States, recipes and cookbooks that were written before 1923 are in the public domain but there is the caveat that if they were renewed after 1978, their copyright is current!

There are some sites where thousands of recipes can be found. I will list some sites below. There are also some sites with Creative Commons licenses.

There are also places such as Wikibooks which are called open-content textbooks.

Myths About Copyright of Recipes

  • If the recipe is on the Internet it is free to use
  • If the recipe is in a magazine from 1915 it is free to use
  • If a recipe is in a cookbook from 1960 it is free to use
  • If a recipe is on a recipe card that my Aunt Jane gave me, it is free to use—(you might not know the source, but you should still try to attribute it somehow if at all possible by looking on the Internet for a similar recipe—or attributing as "I cannot find the source but it was handed down by so-and-so"—but make sure you rewrite it in your own words)
  • A cookbook by someone who has died is in the Public Domain
  • Copyrights before 1923 mean that they are free to use now (again—false—not if the copyright was renewed)
  • Cookbook recipes are okay to use (false—if not if you do not adapt the recipes—although if you do a collection of say 3 different recipes from 3 different cookbooks and attribute all to their original source, rewrite the directions, etc. you have virtually created your 'own' collection)

There are people on the Internet every day who say "Who cares about this stuff with recipes? No one's going to care about a copied recipe." I've seen this posted in many places—and I've seen many recipes posted that are clearly a copy verbatim of a website's listed recipe.

I think there are a couple of schools of thought on it though. We should always give credit where credit is due and to not do that is in effect cheating or stealing.

I think that not changing a recipe to make it 'somewhat' your own is just not a good policy. I also think that eventually, things will become so automated that it will be easy to track these copyrighted things on the Internet—if not already.

Then again, it could become so widespread that no one will care if their recipes are stolen and put up on multiple websites!

My whole philosophy has always been though to keep inside the lines and for that reason alone, I like to make sure I'm doing things as legally as I can.

Another really good way to make a recipe your own and something I do quite often is to take a 'standard' recipe such as bread and tweak it to be made with a different method—or machine. If it is a made-by-hand bread recipe, I create it my own way using my food processor—or my bread maker—or my stand-alone mixer. That inevitably requires some tweaking of the recipe in terms of ingredients or time or preparation—any time the recipe is tweaked, I feel quite confident saying that I made the recipe different myself and in perhaps a 'better' way—but I still give credit to the original recipe creator.

What to Do if You Find Your Recipe on Someone Else’s Website, Article or Blog

With copying of recipes and written material so prevalent on the Internet these days, there is a very good chance that you may end up browsing around the Internet only to find your recipe for calzone stuffing being prominently displayed on someone else's article or blog. If you run across this dilemma, the suggested practice is to email the person directly and ask them to attribute the material to you—and to also rewrite part of it in their own words so that it is not an exact copy of your material (if it is). Also, ask them to link back to the source of their 'find' and give credit where credit is due.

Note: I am speaking of recipes and formulas for making things here, not someone stealing your story or your poems!

Again, I do not have all the answers on this subject and I welcome your comments and perspectives on this as well!

According to Merriam-Webster's definition of plagiarism, I give you the following quotes:

  • “To steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: To use (another person’s production) without crediting the source."
  • "To commit literary theft: Present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.”

So in this day and age of everything and anything available on the Internet in terms of images, graphs, videos, and millions of recipes, does that mean that we can never copy or suggest a recipe on our articles and blogs?

With the popularity of so many recipes here on HubPages and on so many other blogging sites all over the Internet, I thought I needed to answer this question concretely—especially since I happen to be a huge perpetrator of postings of recipes!

After doing a lot of research on this subject, I will share with you my findings and some of them may truly surprise you!

I do not profess to know all there is to know about the legalities of blogging and writing online! If in doubt, please do the research and if you feel that you even need legal counsel on the subject, please do that. There are diametrically opposed opinions on the Internet from one day to the next about what is legal to do and how we should go about it.

It would be really, really easy if all recipes on the Internet were subject to the same rules as images—like a Creative Commons license attached to every one of them. However, that still does not filter out the recipes and ideas we get from books, magazines, or cookbooks sitting on our shelves!

I did an article a while back on growing potatoes in a garbage can and this is how I did it. It was not a unique idea to me—I had read about it perhaps 15 years ago in a Sunset magazine. However, I no longer had the article and I could not find it on the Internet. I then researched the subject and found at least two or three different sets of instructions on how to do this project—and then I picked out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it—attributing the various methods but letting the reader know that I had combined the ideas of two or three different people to achieve my 'recipe'.

"Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, when a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection."

And also: "Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author’s expression in literary, artistic, or musical form. Copyright protection does not extend to names, titles, short phrases, ideas, systems, or methods."

Attribution: US Copyright Office

What Do I Do if I Find My Recipe on Someone Else’s Website, Article or Blog?

With copying of recipes and written material so prevalent on the Internet these days, there is a very good chance that you may end up browsing around the Internet only to find your recipe for calzone stuffing being prominently displayed on someone else's article or blog. If you run across this dilemma, the suggested practice is to email the person directly and ask them to attribute the material to you—and to also rewrite part of it in their own words so that it is not an exact copy of your material (if it is). Also, ask them to link back to the source of their 'find' and give credit where credit is due.

Note: I am speaking of recipes and formulas for making things here, not someone stealing your story or your poems!

Again, I do not have all the answers on this subject and I welcome your comments and perspectives on this as well!

Questions & Answers

Question: Are collective church recipes copywritten if there are no copyright symbols? Many are just a collection of favorites from a community. The format of a published book I can understand, but what about the DIY spiral bound?

Answer: I'm not certain on these community cookbooks. I would imagine that they are indeed copywritten since they are in printed form. If using them, merely attribute the recipe to where you got it from mentioning the book by name and even the author. I would also recommend maybe suggesting a tweak or two. For example, "I changed this or that or used this product." when using the recipe so that it is more 'your own' version of the recipe than the original. Always attribute the author though and where you stumbled upon the recipe, and I think you should be safe.

Question: I want to send postcard out to potential customers with my company logo and I want it to be a recipe card. Can I do this if I show the source of the recipe?

Answer: I think it would have to be a creative commons license or a public domain recipe but I am not an expert. I would investigate it further on the Internet. For instance, if you were going to use a public domain picture to print greeting cards, the image would have to be public domain and/or creative commons with no sharing/use for commercial purposes licensing.

Question: I'm doing a roundup post of 10 delicious vegan cookies or something like that. I don't post the recipes on my site, just the images that link back to the recipe. Am I breaking any laws?

Answer: If you just use images, they should be ones that have a shared license - meaning that they are public domain or they are creative commons licenses. It is illegal to use any images that are copyrighted and do not have sharing privileges. Any image will tell you if it is able to be shared or not that you find on the Internet. You may be asked to remove the image as they do have software to track that kind of thing. I have heard of people receiving fines for using images illegally also. Always check to see if the images you are using are allowed to be used.

Question: If I use the chef's name in my blog name (i.e. Julie and Julia) is that considered copyright infringement?

Answer: No - not at all!

© 2010 Audrey Kirchner