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An Insight into Recipe Copyright Law: Who Owns Piedmont Peppers?

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How to Make Peppers Piedmont

If you search the internet you will eventually find a few commentators who have rather sketchy anecdotal or legal views on recipe ownership. The advice is that publishers of recipes should credit the source of every recipe. It’s interesting to note that the advice is only found on blogs and is directed at bloggers.The difficulty in knowing exactly what is right or not is therefore partially obscured by traditional internet protocols, which attempt to balance free access to content with unwritten rules of transparency and honesty. If ambiguity on the matter is understandable whilst the issue remains online, what about the offline world? It would appear here too, there is lack of clarity. In the food media and in published cookbooks, I see neither endless credits given to other authors, nor do I see endless original recipes.

At the heart of the matter is the protection of intellectual copyright, rather like there is for songs and tunes. But whilst the courts have witnessed many battles from aggrieved composers or musicians, I cannot recall any chefs suing for copyright infringement of a recipe. This must be due to the distinction between creative origination in music and recipes. A tune is deemed to be unique whereas a recipe is not. Clearly many recipes are not unique, but surely there must be many that are. But where do you draw the lines? Further, the advisors mentioned above will go on to say feel free to use the recipe but adapt it. This is a tacit agreement that if recipes cannot be legally copyrighted, they should at least not be copied verbatim. But if this is what is being done then we’re all  heading for recipe meltdown – culinary information will eventually erode into a sticky mass of dodgy recipes – all slightly adapted forms of the same recipes, either being obligingly adapted to credited sources or purposefully altered to avoid crediting sources. And is this gastronomic Armageddon or simply enlightened culinary evolution? It surprises me that this is not a more publicised issue.

Still, concrete guidelines would be useful. As a blogger one is continually presented with potential conflict on these matters. For instance, I know that Giorgio Locatelli admits that there is only one original recipe in his Made in Italy cook book. Yet, apart from a couple of instances the remaining recipes are uncredited. Does this mean that all his other recipes are based on standard recipes? Take a ragu for a lasagne – this must be categorised as a standard recipe which every Italian household knows how to make – there is no written original recipe, no unique methods, no inspired and distinctive ingredients and certainly no copyright. So if I follow Giorgio’s recipe and put it in this blog do I credit my source?

Piedmont peppers are another case in point. Elizabeth David came across them in her travels while writing Italian Food. Delia Smith picks up the trail, saying that the Italian chef Franco Taruschio at the Walnut Tree Inn, in Wales, put the dish on his menu. Simon Hopkinson, ate it at the Walnut Tree and put it on his menu at his London restaurant Bibendum, where Delia ate it. She reproduces the recipe for everybody to copy and enjoy. Simon does relay the same story in his book, Roast chicken and other stories. But I have seen the same recipe by Nigel Slater, Skye Gyngell and countless others – none mention Simon, Franco or Elizabeth. It would seem that Slater, Gyngell et al deem the recipe to be common knowledge and therefore common property…

Delia’s and Simon’s stories affectionately tell of happy experiences when eating a something new and delicious for the first time. The trail of connections leading back into the past adds extra texture and interest to their stories rather than shedding any light on the origins of the baked peppers.

And so who owns Piedmont peppers? Who knows? For the moment, perhaps we can settle on the Piedmontese… and if we call them Piedmont peppers then the recipe has been duly credited.

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