You know you’ve made it on the web when you’re asked to take something down.
For Christmas I received, amongst other lovely presents, a copy of Dan Lepard’s book The Handmade Loaf. I really enjoy breadmaking, with all of the processes and the minor biological miracle that turns flour and water into a cohesive loaf.
Since then I’ve been trying out at least one, sometimes several, recipes from the book each weekend. Two weeks ago I made flaky butter buns, posting a photo of the result (delicious) on Twitter and Google+.
I was asked for the recipe, but as a) I’m fairly conscientious and b) I’ve been learning a lot about copyright recently this raised a question: is it a breach of copyright to share someone else’s recipe.
A couple of online conversations and one Guardian article later, I had my answer: recipes are not protected by copyright under either UK or US law. A recipe is an idea, not the expression of an idea, and is therefore not copyrightable.
A recipe may be covered by a patent or trade secret, but for a patent to be granted it would have to differ significantly from any other previous recipe and, having been published in a book, it clearly cannot be a trade secret.
So conscience satisfied, I went ahead and posted the recipe for flaky butter buns on my other blog.
Rather than use Lepard’s own words, which would have infringed copyright, I wrote it in my own style, which tends to skip over steps — you either need to have some baking knowledge or take the hint and buy the book. I also raved (as I have done before) about the book itself, including an Amazon link so that readers could go ahead and buy it for themselves.
I felt in doing so that I behaved appropriately both legally and morally, and thought no more about it.
Several days later, I got an email notifying my of a comment on the post (this rarely happens). As it turns out, this comment was from a member of Lepard’s team accusing me of infringing his copyright.
Now as I’ve said, I don’t believe that I did infringe copyright (if you’re a lawyer, I’d love to hear a legal opinion on this), but since I respect Lepard as a professional and small businessman I chose to respect his wishes (or at least those of his employee) and remove the recipe anyway.
In the end this isn’t a question about the law. It’s about whether sharing (and letting other people share) your stuff is a good idea or not.
Even the most cursory Google search for recipe titles suggests that, should I want to, I could recreate the entire collection for free. But one of the reasons I like this book is that it’s more than a collection of recipes. It’s a well crafted book about bread. In addition to the recipes it contains both photographs (by the author) and descriptions of encounters with bakers around the world.
Yes, you can get most if not all of those recipes for free online and not have to pay a penny, but anyone who’s going to do that was never going to buy the book in the first place. In fact you could get the whole experience of the book for free, just by going down to your local library.
On the other hand, I like to think that a few of my friends might have been motivated to buy their own copy of the book on the basis of my recommendation — word of mouth being the best form of advertising and free to boot.
So now there is no recipe, and no endorsement, and no link to buy the book on Amazon. I’ll probably think twice before recommending the book in the future (wait, didn’t I just do that again three paragraphs ago?).
I’d be kidding myself if I thought this will make the slightest difference to the book’s sales, but you have to wonder: if you have a book to sell, is it worth paying someone to spend time trawling the internet (which is a pretty big place) just to ensure your book is the only place the contents can be found?
People will still send recipes by email, or photocopy them, or pass them on by word of mouth. They will clip them out of the paper, note them down in notebooks and then post the clippings to loved ones.
This has always happened and always will, and though some instances are covered by copyright law, it’s completely unenforcible in such cases.
The internet makes this sharing more visible, but it presents an opportunity too. The classic example is YouTube: increasingly rights owners are taking the option to place ads around potentially infringing videos rather than blindly demand takedowns.
By the way, Martin Weller’s made his whole book, The Digital Scholar available online for free, and some mugs (me included) still seem to be paying for it. Perhaps we’re all just idiots.
All I really want to say is this: if you have a book to sell (or any other creative work), consider carefully the pros and cons of permitting parts to be shared freely.
Policing takes time and time is money, and even if the pros and cons balance out all you’re doing is spending that money to achieve zero result. Perhaps that time would be better spent engaging with your readers in positive ways.