Should Bloggers be Praised for Recipes They Don’t Write?

by diannejacob on January 4, 2011

After years of wondering if she should do so, she wrote her first cookbook, based on family recipes. Included was her grandmother’s spice cake, invented for her mother’s wedding cake, put into print for the world to share. It was the cake the author baked and took with her to book signings, the recipe that always worked.┬áDon’t forget the decoration, crisp white chair covers for weddings will stand out if coordinated with white polyester table runners adorned with the chair sashes in the color that match with napkins, balloons, and backdrop accents.

And now that cake recipe is available online in a blog, published pretty much verbatim, except for the icing.

Close to 100 people have commented. They praise the cake, saying it is a perfect dessert, how one was planning to make a different cake and now would have to make this instead, how one wanted this cake for her wedding cake now. They praise its name. They say it looks amazing and awesome and yummy.

The commenters also praise the blogger for making the process look easy and accessible, how the cake looked awesome in the photo, and for her tip about using PAM spray.

The blogger wrote her post in the conventional manner. It began with a money shot of the dark cake with white icing (not the shot above), followed by several step-by-step photos a la Pioneer Woman. The blogger mentioned the cookbook by name — twice — and linked to it on Amazon. She wrote that recipe was “inspired by” the original.

When I asked the author if the post bothered her, she said, “I just think it’s funny…Lots of praise for the writer of the blog.” She noted that the blogger did not have to ask the publisher for permission because she wrote that the recipe was “inspired by.” I compared it to the original recipe and found the blogger made these changes: she used pumpkin pie spice instead of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg; she reduced the vanilla to 1 teaspoon from 2; and she changed the icing. It’s still basically the same cake.

Is it odd that commenters praise the blogger as the maker of the cake, not the author of the recipe? Or is that just how food blogging works? Can you see how it might be disconcerting from the author’s perspective?

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

{ 43 comments }

Nancy Baggett January 6, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Liz, the topic of plagiarism has come up before–it’s a huge problem to all folks actually creating their own work and posting on the web. Dianne has posted about it, and so have I. I went and found some excellent free software to run to see just who’s out there borrowing what stuff from me and posted on it recently. You might want to try running some of the software yourself.

j. crew January 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Your kidding right? There is no such thing as an “Original” recipe. You may think your the fist but it has all been done before. There are also NO “copy rights” to recipes and that is the reason why. As far as copy and paste that’s another story. You may be just as guilty and dont realize it. Just because I use O.J. instead of milk in my milk shakes dose that make it an original. I have never heard anyone else say they do that with their shakes. But I would be ignorant to assume I am the only one on earth that has done it. Should this comment be copy written? Dang it i just gave away my seceret! The original author should be happy that the world can now enjoy her cake! Unless its all about the money and not the food. Food Bloggers don’t make money generaly. they do it for the love of food, to share how easy cooking can be, and show that gourmet cooking is not as inaccesable as they may think.

diannejacob January 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm

j.crew, hmm. Aren’t you a retail store?

You’re entitled to your opinion, even though I don’t agree.

To your question of whether your comment should be copy written, I don’t know what that means, but it could use a spell check.

katie January 7, 2011 at 11:03 am

I think a spirit of generosity on both sides of this is ideal: a recipe writer open to sharing her work and a blogger who gives credit where credit is due. I posted a smoothie recipe today from a cookbook.after getting advanced permission to do so. The authors were delighted that I like their recipes. I was happy to spread the word about their books. It was a lovely exchange. I could have easily posted my own smoothie recipe, but wanted to publish one of theirs because I have used their books for years and wanted to give them a shout out.

diannejacob January 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm

No problem, Katie. You contacted the author and got permission. Everyone’s happy.

Heather Jones January 7, 2011 at 11:39 am

Maybe this isn’t applicable because Melissa didn’t post this on a food blog but I just thought it might give everyone some food for thought. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/17/dining/17appe.html?_r=2&ref=dining&oref=login

diannejacob January 7, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I think it’s perfectly applicable. She wrote about her process of how she comes up with new recipe ideas, and gave credit to the recipes that inspired her. By now, however, the recipe is hers.

Nancy Baggett January 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Actually, while the list of ingredients can’t be copyrighted, ip attorneys say the intro text and instruction text are indeed copyrightable, just like other text. So, technically, a recipe must be rewritten in the borrower’s own words to be reused (unless permission to use has been granted). Additionally, tho people often argue that recipes aren’t unique enough to be copyrighted, they very often are. Take a very simple shortbread for example: Ingredients are simple, but methods are wildly different. Butter can be cut in or beaten in; added alone or mixed with the sugar; sugar can be white, powdered, or brown; dough can be baked in a pan & cut into bars, or hand-shaped, or rolled and cut out. Flavorings, nuts, etc., can be added or not. Garnishes can be added or not Each decision will yield a unique shortbread, different in taste, texture and appearance from any other.

diannejacob January 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Yes, that is what I have read as well. This blogger wrote her own headnote and method. The latter was easy because she took step-by-step photos for them.

Paula January 7, 2011 at 7:55 pm

I’ve been thinking about the idea of “3 changes don’t necessarily make a recipe your own” and the subjectivity of such a measure. Is it possible we underestimate the power of a few small changes?

As the creator of several original recipes, I have had friends and commenters tell me they made changes based on personal preferences, dietary limitations, ingredient availability or ignorance that left me hoping they didn’t tell anybody where they got the original recipe.

diannejacob January 8, 2011 at 12:20 pm

That all sounds fine. I’m talking about the kind of changes the blogger in this post made, just so she could post the recipe. Changing vanilla to 1 tsp. instead of 2 is not a sufficient change, nor is combining the spices and using pumpkin pie spice instead, which has the same ingredients. Changing the icing is a good move but doesn’t make up for the insincerity of the other two.

Nurit - 1 family. friendly. food. January 9, 2011 at 8:38 am

Sometimes when I see an “adapted” recipe I wonder is this person capable of inventing any recipe from scratch? Are they good enough cooks? Are they skilled bakers? If s/he don’t have the skills to invent their own chocolate chip cookie out of the blue, can they claim to be the owners of their personalized verion of Jacques Torres NY Time chocolate cookie because they have “adapted” it?

diannejacob January 9, 2011 at 10:31 am

That is a good question. Many people like making pre-existing recipes and sharing them with others. Plus, coming up with a new recipe is a lot of work. So I think it’s perfectly okay to do the former, if it’s done right.

Aleta January 11, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Very few recipes are truly original. Take chocolate chip cookies. All the recipes in even the most respected cookbooks are very similar in the proportions of flour, butter, sugar, baking powder and salt. The only apparent differences are in the creaming technique, type of chocolate and flavoring (vanilla or not). Yet the results are quite different. I think it’s very hard to draw the line and say, this recipe is original and that is not. That’s why honest writers attribute.

diannejacob January 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm

I agree that it is very hard, and chocolate chip cookies is a great example. Most recipes, however, are not as iconic.

Rick Rodgers January 26, 2011 at 1:07 pm

The fact that Alice Medrich, a true goddess of our business, just did an entire book on variations on the chocolate chip cookie theme proves that, indeed, a recipe is not just a recipe. On the other hand, Michael Ruhlman (in his book RATIO) has shown that you can use a basic formula as the starting point for recipes. Sorry, but I see that most of the recipes that are “borrowed” from other writers are done so merely out of laziness and expediency. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that.

Stephanie Weaver January 16, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Dianne,
Thank you for addressing this perplexing topic, one which is particularly important to me, as I change (“renovate”) recipes to make them healthier for people with special diets. In my case, I read up on this topic before starting my blog, finding David Lebovitz’s attribution discussion particularly helpful, and I always say where the original recipe came from, as well as why and how I changed it. If it’s from a cookbook, I link to where they can buy that cookbook.

I also develop my own recipes. But honestly, I have “invented” a delicious mango salsa. When I Google “mango salsa recipe” there are pages of them, some very similar to mine that I did not read in advance. So I agree it’s a challenge.

If I ever do publish a cookbook, I would certainly only use my recipes in it, not ones I have adapted slightly from others. I certainly hope that any author or other blogger would let me know if they were unhappy with my approach. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

diannejacob January 17, 2011 at 8:45 pm

David did a thorough job in his discussion, and I have read it many times. I’m not sure about the “changing 3 things” approach to adapting recipes, if the changes are minor. I suppose for some people it’s just an easy way to get someone else’s recipe on their blogs.

Yes, the mango salsa is a good example. You think you’ve got something new and then you Google it and find out it seems like there’s nothing new under the sun.

Michelle Zack January 16, 2011 at 11:24 pm

How can we blame bloggers for something when professionals do it to?

I watched a video on the “Best Fudge Brownies” by Curtis Stone (http://www.kitchendaily.com/2010/03/08/best-fudge-brownies/) and in the first 16 seconds he says that the recipe is actually his friend Rochelle’s (Rochelle Palermo – not that he gives a last name but I got to that page from her website.)

The video was posted on KitchenDaily, AOL’s food site. And what text do the AOL editors put on the page? “Get Curtis Stone’s Best Fudge Brownies recipe.

Not get Curits Stone’s friend Rochelle Palermo’s Best Fudge Brownies recipe.

And it’s not just the editors- Curtis could have used Rochelle’s last name too when giving credit.

Point is if pro’s do it we certainly can’t expect a higher standard from bloggers.

diannejacob January 17, 2011 at 8:48 pm

The AOl editors aren’t necessarily reading the fine print. Since it’s Curtis’s show, that’s how they blurb it. At least he gave his friend credit, although I agree that it would’ve been better to use her last name.

Re how pros do it, most professionals do a good job of giving credit where credit is due.

Christine @ Cook the Story January 17, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Dianne and Commenters,
I can’t tell you how much I’ve benefited from this post and the discussion following it. I’m a new food-blogger who has agonized over these types of details for my posts. I felt like I was getting it wrong with every attempt. But now I see that even experienced bloggers/writers are wrestling with these issues.

That makes me feel much better!

For now, I’ll just keep putting my most original creations forward while being as honest about inspirations and sources as possible.

Thank you!
Chris

diannejacob January 17, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Isn’t it great to read these comments? Using someone else’s recipes is a touchy subject, worth trying to figure out. I’m grateful to everyone who’s tried to do so here in this post.

Kimberley February 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I have a problem with food bloggers writing recipes in this manner. Frankly, if I wanted to see a photo of a recipe I’d look in one of the hundred cookbooks I already have. I enjoy reading the blogs of food writers that do their own cooking, not making someone else’s art and posting it on their blog with a fancy photo. Lots of these bloggers get accolades, too, but I just don’t get it. I’m new to the blogging community, maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be?

diannejacob February 5, 2011 at 7:13 pm

It seems to be the norm for many food bloggers, Kimberley, and technically, there’s nothing wrong with it. Karmically, that might be a different matter.

Ruby February 18, 2011 at 3:35 am

I think a point has been missed here, which is that food blogging isn’t only about creating new recipes. It’s often a way of saying ‘hey, I saw this recipe and tried it and here’s what I thought, what I changed, etc.’ It’s just tossing around ideas, reviews and inspirations. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, so long as the original author is credited. But even that can be hard to do, especially since (as has been noted) there aren’t many truly original recipes out there. An example: I thought I’d invented Fetziki, and I may have, but a quick Google search tells me so did several other bloggers.

I recently posted a Bread Pudding recipe from one of my favourite books. Since I didn’t change a thing, I scanned the page (and got the author’s permission). The blog post resulted in at least 2 book sales for her (that I know of). When I later posted a version of her Jambalaya recipe, I also credited her (with a link to her book) but as ‘adapted from’, since I changed it slightly. It’s true that it’s hard to know how much you have to change a recipe before its yours. I’d say always err on the side of caution. It never hurts to cite your inspiration – it’s good karma and, who knows, one day someone may be citing YOU!

One problem I’ve noticed is that, in an effort to leave as many comments as possible, some bloggers don’t really read the posts before commenting how much they ‘love your recipe’. So it’s they, rather than I, who are giving me credit for something I never claimed was mine. I find that frustrating and embarrassing.

diannejacob February 18, 2011 at 5:19 pm

It’s fine to run the recipe if you get the author’s permission, and I’m glad you did so, Ruby. Your last comment goes to what I brought up in my post, that sometimes the commenters don’t seem to get that it’s not your recipe.

Stine March 1, 2011 at 10:43 pm

This is a simple thank you! I have spent over 2 hours reading almost every comment of your lasts 4 posts. I feel quite enlightened. Plenty food for thought! Well worth it. I started blogging 2 months ago and thanks to David Lebowitz’ notes on blogging and accrediting your sources, I got off on the right path. I do believe in giving credit where credit is due. We all win when good recipes are shared. No losers. Really. I always refer to cookbooks/magazines/blogs directly when I am inspired by a recipe. No matter how much I tweak or technically change the recipe , which is often the case. I’m doing this because I’m hoping it will increase sales or attract attention, because they have earned it – and perhaps naively hoping that readers will accredit me, if they like one of my recipes. I post a new recipe every 3-4 days. Many are my own creations. My mind is constantly working on new ideas. It’s a hobby and a passion. I dream about food and blogging is an amazing outlet for someone like me. Btw I just ordered your book. Can’t wait to read it. Thanks again for a very inspiring evening. I shall be back.

diannejacob March 2, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Well, what a pleasure to receive your email. You are most welcome. I hope my blog continues to attract your attention.

April August 17, 2011 at 6:32 pm

When I post about making recipes that are not my own, I always give credit. At this point, I have chosen NOT to use any recipes that are printed in books. If I ever chose to do that, I would certainly ask for permission first.

Here’s an example of what I have done (though please bear in mind I’ve only been writing as a food blogger for a month or so now):

1) Wrote about needing to make a GF birthday cake and wanting to decorate it with dinosaurs for a child’s b-day
2) Posted a link to the recipe that I used. I did not re-type the recipe. I simply said: “Here’s the recipe I used, and here’s why I loved it and recommend it.”
3) Gave step-by-step picture directions for decorating a GF dinosaur cake for a child’s b-day.

Now, there are posts that I’ve done where I’ve written my own recipe from scratch, or by borrowing a basic fat/starch ratio and then totally modifying all the ingredients. Like, I looked at the ratio of an oatmeal cookie recipe and came up with a banana-oat breakfast cookie that looked nothing like the recipe I glanced at. I work diligently to give credit when a recipe is definitely not my own, but I see no problem with borrowing a basic ratio or linking to someone else’s recipe. I see linking to someone’s site as a head nod, and it directs my traffic to their site, which hopefully they appreciate.

diannejacob August 17, 2011 at 9:32 pm

I like the example you gave, April, of posting a link to the recipe, and then doing your own riff on personalizing it. That is original and it’s very respectful of the original writer. I see no problem with borrowing a basic ratio, especially if you give credit for the inspiration.

Cookin at Home September 15, 2011 at 12:33 pm

There is a blog that I have come across that has really rubbed me the wrong way. I had a friend recommend the site to me, and after looking at it, I have no idea why! The entire site is completely ripping off other people’s content (photos and recipes). She has a Facebook page as well, and all the pictures posted are off of other websites. I typed a couple of her recipes into Google and would find the same recipe almost verbatim and it’s clear all she did was copy and paste. I have tried to comment nicely for her to give credit to where she found the recipes but she doesn’t approve the comments or respond. Should I just ignore this and move on? It just bothers me because I have become a fan of some really great blogs and I just hate to see someone stealing content and not caring.

diannejacob September 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm

No, you should not ignore this and move on. You should tell her, very politely, as if it was your best friend who is screwing up, that it’s wrong. I have had to tell people things like this and it is very hard. But I get up the guts, most of the time. And most of the time, people tell me they didn’t know, and they thank me. Maybe they will just ignore my advice, but at least I feel better!

Lauren January 29, 2012 at 9:23 am

How is this the author’s recipe, though? She took it from her grandmother’s cookbook, gets to call it her own and make money off of it?

diannejacob January 30, 2012 at 9:45 am

Hah! I can’t believe that no one has brought up this point. Good one.

Natalie March 12, 2012 at 2:46 pm

This is a really useful source of information. I’m starting to write some of my first blog posts, and there were things in here I hadn’t even thought about…up until now. It seems like it’s going to be hard to please everyone!

diannejacob March 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm

That’s true, but it’s good to think about the ethical ramifications of using someone else’s recipes. Good luck, Natalie.

ruthie July 29, 2012 at 2:33 am

On one food blog I follow fairly religiously, all her recipes are clearly stated as “adapted from…” But her changes are so inspired that I have to praise her. It’s not just more of this and less of that, it’s a total 180 degree twist on the original. So, yeah, she deserves to be praised.

In most instances, though, I don’t think positive comments are more than a reflex meaning “I support your blog” or “I like the recipes you feature” or “your food porn is the best!” You know, knee jerk? That credit to the originator probably just flies over the commenters’ heads.

It does kind of bother me on one level because I develop my own recipes, but I know not everyone else has the time or inclination to do that. And, really, isn’t a food blog as much about the personality/style of the blogger as it is about the recipes?

diannejacob July 29, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Interesting, Ruthie. I’d like to know who this food blogger is, so I can see her adaptations.

I suspect most food bloggers are not creating original recipes. As for your question, I guess it depends on the blog. Some are full of personality, and some are focused on the recipe.

ruthie August 1, 2012 at 12:34 am

I never name names, even if my comments are positive. I’m not food blogging at the moment, but I’m working on getting back online, so I want to be honest in my comments but not make enemies. Lord, that makes me sound like a wimp. /;)

I tend to be outspoken, but I don’t want to be hurtful. Nor do I want to open up a woman who seems to be very nice and, I should add, quite popular, to the adapted-by police. I have pretty high standards and can be hypercritical. This (food blogging) has traditionally been a pretty friendly, supportive community, and I think there’s room in it for those who create their own recipes as well as those who only do inspired adaptations.

And, really, if someone has a goal of posting daily, that’s hard enough to do well, without adding the burden of always being original. Think of it as a friend’s house where it’s comfortable, enjoyable, attractive although maybe not exciting. Would you drop that friend for his/her lack of originality?

diannejacob August 1, 2012 at 7:41 am

I can be hypercritical too, Ruthie. It’s not a great club to be in.

I thought this post brought up an interesting point. Bloggers and recipe writers are going to continue to adapt. We just have to be aware of the issues that it brings up.

ruthie August 1, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Yes. I guess this is one of those times when each individual has to decide to decide between playing it safe (if so, why are you bothering to blog?) or playing fearless blogger and CYA big time.

Barbara | Creative Culinary August 6, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I ended up on this post quite obviously some time after it was originally written curious to see if a person with a popular blog who it appears has just used one of my recipes for inspiration might have commented on recipe attribution on your blog since it’s quite evident my recipe has been used and yet no mention has been made of said inspiration.

Still, I have a very open minded sense of all of this. I did not start a blog but for one reason. To cull together the recipes I love in one place. I started this exercise 17 years ago, almost a decade before food blogging started to become a cottage industry of it’s own and now there are rules and expectations that floor me.

In the zest for credits it sometimes feels as if the purpose of many of us is lost. I’m not cooking for notoriety. I’m not blogging for a book deal or hits. I cook for the love of the job; it’s creative, fun and the reward at the end is feeding those I love the most. I post recipes on my blog that I make and love, whether they are my own creations or those of others. In that effort, I can’t remember when I haven’t put my own spin on a recipe…for me that is the creative part that makes it mine. Maybe not in the eyes of the person who ‘created’ it but how much of that creativity can be held only by the writer Dianne?

Isn’t part of that my own capability and experience if not always my own creativity? Doesn’t the time I spend shopping, chopping, dicing, measuring, cooking, styling, photographing, writing and editing mean I have vested ME in this process? Doesn’t that allow me some ownership of the end result?

If the majority of the people writing blogs are only doing so to get a cookbook deal then maybe the bent of these essays and comments are in that vein. I’m not. I do this for me, for my friends and yes…for my children. I have built a literal library of decades of favorites; all in one space for them to have at their fingertips. I’m not using others’ recipes to build my own advantage but I’m also not doing this work so that I can build theirs. The notion that I should do that work and then just link to another blog for the recipe bothers me in a very real sense. They are now the keepers of my efforts. What if they go away? For me it seems like the same as having a great experience with a friend but instead of keeping that experience for me in MY diary that I should put it in theirs. Who is guaranteeing that diary will survive with important pieces of my life?

How I long for the day when the sharing of recipes was something given freely and generously, without expectation. Do I attribute? Absolutely. Do I feel the sense of righteousness about attribution has jumped the shark? Absolutely.

diannejacob August 7, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Barbara. People have different reasons for starting a blog. You do it because you love to cook. In the old days you might have photocopied a recipe you loved and passed it on to someone you fed who raved about it. Now you can pass it along on a blog, where it is published. So that is a little different, because publishing someone else’s work has ramifications about ownership. What’s nice about writing your own blog post, on the other hand, is that you can amend the recipe and make it more of your own — at least theoretically.

I don’t think the majority of food blogs exist because the bloggers hope for book deals. They are hobbies.

Re the staying power of recipes, it is true that someone might take down a recipe post, and your link will be lost. Most don’t, though. All this stuff that we’re creating will be out there on the Internet forever, unless we have a reason to remove it. Like you say, you can choose to memorialize the experience on your blog instead. But then these issues come into play.

Re the past days when people shared recipes freely and generously, the situation was different. Probably most people were hobby cooks who had not published their recipes, and the person they gave the recipe to was not going to publish it.

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