Questions turn up for which a good answer is sitting on my bookshelf. Anyone care to comment on my decision to post a reference but not quote the material?


Some thoughts in response to answers so far:

  1. OK, no legal issue.
  2. I have an ethical qualm, myself: someone worked hard to create this cookbook, aren't they entitled to their reward from people buying it?
  3. The OP is no better or worse off than anyone else: either they can put their hands on the book I referenced, or not.
  4. In this particular case, the answer is not a simple 'list of ingredients in order'. It's a procedure that goes on at some length, complete with a discussion of possible problems and outcomes. Aside from whether that reopens the legal question, it does pose a question of how much typing I'm willing to do.
  • I many times feel compelled to go beyond reference and search for the earliest reference to a recipe. Some recipes are not just variants of other recipes. Think of Herve This' chocolate chantilly, or Heston Blumenthal's bacon desserts, or Jim Lahey's no knead bread.
    – papin
    Jul 14, 2010 at 3:17

4 Answers 4


A recipe (list of quantities and ingredients, etc.) itself is not copyrightable; though any descriptive, etc. text may be. Also, if they get poetic with their list, their actual expression of it, as they expressed it, may be copyrightable.

So, just distill it down to the essential list of ingredients, amounts, and procedures.

In the words of the Copyright Office:

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. (http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl122.html)

  • Isn't there copyright on that text from the Copyright Office?
    – Mien
    Jun 22, 2012 at 19:03
  • @Mien No, works of the US Government are in the public domain, by law.
    – derobert
    Jun 22, 2012 at 19:12

A few issues to consider: (1)

References are only 8% Helpful

It may feel like you are talking to the author one-on-one, helping them with your answer. But that is only a really, really small part of the picture. In reality, you are simply talking over their shoulder to a much larger audience. 92% of our traffic comes from search engines (I don't know if that is the exact number, let's just say its the "overwhelming majority"). If you provide a citation without any content, your answer does not help the other 92% of people find your information at all.

Ingredients Are Not Copyrightable

The text of the recipes is copyright by the author. But the mere list of ingredients is not. Copyright covers the "substantial expression" of directions, just not the information itself. So, you are free to copy the list of ingredients. You are also free to describe the procedure in your text, providing you don't use the author's wording.

Always Provide Attribution

Legal use or not, we focus on giving proper attribution to other people's works (see the cc-wiki license we live by). When using the work or research of someone else, it is strongly recommended that you provide a citation. It is more a matter of ethics and etiquette rather than Copyright law.

Fair Use Does Not Apply

I should say "...does not "necessarily" apply." Some believe that you can copy a recipe verbatim as "Fair Use" because it is only a small excerpt from the original text. That is not what Fair Use is about.

Fair Use not about quantity; it's about context. Fair use gives you the freedom to create original commentary on other people's works, not to appropriate the work of others. If you were to copy a passage of text from a cookbook to provide critique, you would likely be covered. If you were to copy that passage as part of a larger work of instruction, you would also be covered.

But cutting-and-pasting a block of text as an answer, in and of itself, is not covered by Fair Use. You can't claim to have created an original body of work if a substantial portion of the text is not your own.

(1) The standard "I am not a lawyer" yada-yada applies. Laws vary from country to country.


Summarized from Just Right Menus - legal:

Copyrights only apply to creative works. Copyrights do not apply to things like lists or instructions. So far, recipes have not been considered creative works and therefore cannot be copyrighted. What is copyrightable is things like recipe collections/books, descriptions, and photos.

More info:




Fair use excerpt wouldn't apply?

I found an interesting Washington Post article

It's highly unlikely, he said, that anyone would be sued for putting someone else's published recipe -- with or without attribution -- in a charity cookbook or posting it on the Internet where it can be disseminated to millions of cooks almost instantly. In fact, said Vaidhyanathan, an assistant professor of culture and communications at New York University, it would be unusual even to receive a nasty letter about it. "There isn't [big] money at stake."

Per Stanford's Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors

Anyone who contributes anything to the web should have the four factors of fair use commited to memory by now:

  1. the purpose of the use
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the relative amount of the portion used
  4. the market effect of the use on the copyrighted work

These are the four factors courts use to determine if something is fair use.

  • fair enough. Not my area of expertise, so I thought I'd ask first.
    – bmargulies
    Jul 10, 2010 at 13:35

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