Why no patent or copyright for new food recipes?

A loyal MR reader writes in:

Why do we have IPRs for literature, the arts and music but not for food dishes?  Of course, I’m not talking about a copyright on the Ham & Cheese sandwich, I’m talking about innovative new dishes…I’m not arguing that we SHOULD have IPRs for food, just wondering what the big difference is (if any) between the culinary arts and other arts…I realize it would be difficult to enforce such rights at mom & pop type places…but it would be possible to enforce those rights at big name places and large chains.

Food relies so much on execution, or at the national chain level on marketing, that the mere circulation of a recipe does not much diminish the competitive advantage of the creative chef.  Try buying a fancy cookbook by a celebrity chef and see how well the food turns out.  (In contrast, an MP3 file is a pretty good substitute for a CD.)  Most chefs view their cookbooks as augmenting the value of the "restaurant experience" they provide, not diminishing it.  Furthermore industry norms, and the work of food critics, will give innovating chefs the proper reputational credit.  It is not worth the litigation and vagueness of standards that recipe patents would involve.

Here is a recent article on recipe copyright

Here is an academic paper on how norm-based copyright governs the current use of recipes.  French chefs will ostracize "club members" who copy innovative recipes outright.  Now the fashion industry wants IP protection as well.


I'm sure that if this were possible, someone (somecorp?) would eventually patent Sandwich, with subsidiary claims of Sandwich with Liquid Sauce etc., and sub-subsidiary claims of Ham-and-Cheese Sandwich, Peanut butter and jelly Sandwich and the whole caboodle.

On a serious note, patenting requires precedence, and cannot handle independent inventions of the same or very similar nature well. Especially in a well-established domain, there are times when a solution is "in the air", and it's largely a matter of luck who hits upon it first. The history of XXc. technology is full of such examples.

Ironically, someone *has* patented the Peanut Butter & Jelly - or at least the version with the PB&J sealed inside the bread.

The reason fashion, databases and recipes can't be copyrighted, but music has three different sets of copyrights on each recording? Better lobbyists. I think it's pretty clear that economic optimality has very little to do with how IP policy is set, and that's a shame; the gains from a more optimal IP regime are vastly greater, at least for the developed countries, than the gains from something like more open trade. Indeed, with TRIPS, these two goals may be working at cross purposes!

The presentation of food probably is eligible for a design patent (a patent on an aesthetic design embodied in a material object). You'd have to check 35 U.S.C. 171.

If you don't want someone to copy your food dish, then don't publish the recipe.

In other words, an IPR regime already exists for recipes, and it works quite well: the law of trade secrets.

The Coca-Cola formula is the most famous example, but lots of food suppliers and restaurant chains have food formulas protected by confidentiality agreements, ownership agreements, etc.

Since the powerful players already have effective protection, they don't lobby the government for new laws that would only increase their legal risk and uncertainty.

Your arguments against recipe copyrights would go against music copyrights as well. For instance, everything you said about cookbooks could be said about sheet music, which is clearly protected by copyrights. Even CDs could be said to "augment the value" of a "concert experience," and while and MP3 is a good subsitute for a CD, is it a good substitue for a live performance? Also, while a cookbook may not be a good substitute for a meal prepared by a celebrity chef, isn't a meal prepared by another professionally trained chef using the celebrity chef's recipe a pretty good substitute? Why should highly creative chefs be forced to eke out a living solely on "performances," and not be allowed to license their recipes to other chefs, while creative musicians can earn a living either by performing OR writing music for others to perform?

For the record, though, I would prefer scaling back copyrights in nearly all areas, rather than extending them to recipes.

I'm not convinced that Mr. Cowen has the law correct on this one. Why can't you patent food? Anyone have a case cite saying you can't?

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