Your great-grandmother’s rum cake. An old family friend’s unbeatable chocolate chip cookie recipe. Maybe even your little cousin’s signature slime concoction (which, no, she definitely should not try to eat). They’re all treasured recipes and they’re all worth protecting, but can they be?
Intellectual property laws can be used to protect creations and inventions from unauthorized use. For example, a large toy company cannot legally reproduce and sell an independent toymaker’s signature doll if that toymaker trademarked his creation. Similarly, the scientist behind a new, innovative type of drug can protect that drug by obtaining a patent on it. Patents are different from trademarks because they are obtained for inventions that provide new technical solutions to a problem, whereas a trademark’s purpose is to show consumers that a product came from one specific origin or source. Patents also generally only last twenty years, while trademarks can potentially last indefinitely if they are renewed every ten years. Patents generally cannot be renewed.
Intellectual property law also involves copyrights and trade secrets. Copyrights can be used to protect “original works of authorship.” This means that an artist can copyright their art or music, and an author can copyright their writing. Trade secrets usually protect formulas, practices, and secret devices or techniques used in manufacturing something.
But what about recipes? Recipes don’t usually fall under patent law because patents are usually for inventions with some utilitarian purpose. A recipe can only be patented if it’s new, useful, and not obvious, and recipes don’t usually satisfy all of those elements.
So how about trademarking a recipe? A recipe can be trademarked if the trademark is for branding purposes, but obtaining a one on a recipe won’t prevent others from using it. For example, trademarking a type of muffin under your name means that others are not legally allowed to sell identical muffins under that name, although nothing prevents them from selling muffins using the same recipe. If John Doe trademarks “John Doe Brand Blueberry Muffins,” other people can still sell identical blueberry muffins. They just aren’t allowed to claim that they are selling “John Doe Brand Blueberry Muffins” because they don’t have that trademark.
Trade secrets are also unlikely to be much help unless the process you use to create something is novel and unique. When it comes to cooking, most recipes use the same process in the same way (stirring, kneading, shredding, baking, and so forth) so trade secrets probably won’t protect your recipe.
Finally, you are unlikely to be able to obtain a copyright on a recipe because it is just a list of ingredients and simple instructions. This means that a recipe isn’t really an original work of authorship in any substantial way and doesn’t fall under a copyright’s purpose of protecting original works of authorship.
You probably won’t be able to prevent others from using your recipes once they have obtained them. That might not be all bad, though. Would you want to live in a world where only one person is legally allowed to bake apple pie? Not being able to monopolize a recipe means that the world is free to create and share recipes openly, making the world a whole lot tastier.
If you have any other legal questions or concerns, remember that King Law Offices are always here to help. Give us a call at (888)-748-KING for all your legal needs. But for now, let’s all enjoy a slice of rum cake and celebrate the joys of sharing recipes with those we love.