The Great Recipe Rip-Off
When it comes to recipes, a little credit goes a long way argues food writer and blogger, Kerstin Rodgers aka MsMarmiteLover.
Image © Paul Winch Furness
In 2014, press headlines announced the ‘first ever Marmite cupcake’. This came as a surprise, given that in 2010, Marmite had commissioned me to make 100 Marmite cupcakes, for which I created and baked two original recipes, which were also sent out to the press. I blogged the recipes at the time, and also included one of them in my first book, Supper Club: Recipes and Notes From The Underground (HarperCollins 2011).
Looking more closely at this new ‘first ever Marmite cupcake’ recipe in Shortlist magazine, I noticed that it seemed to be a mash-up of my two recipes. Worse, the magazine had copied and pasted some of the text from my recipe, but not all; to the point that this new recipe didn’t make any sense. In fact, readers were commenting below the article to complain. They’d bought the ingredients and attempted the recipe but it didn’t work; indeed, it was impossible for it to work.
The minute that something is published in a tangible form, the copyright belongs to the author, whether that is in digital form, or paper or carved in stone.
Even more shockingly, the articles in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Metro and Evening Standard mentioning the 'first ever Marmite cupcake' made use of a press release from Marmite - for the Shortlist recipe was a collaboration between Marmite and Lola’s Cupcakes - quoting the managing director of Lola’s Cupcakes: “Marmite’s saltiness complements the caramel extremely well, but the centre will either be a shock or a pleasure depending on where your Marmite sensibilities lie!”
My original 2010 blog post said: "It was important to have that salty intense Marmite hit peeking through the sweetness and this was achieved by creating a strongly Marmite flavoured 'centre' in the cupcakes. This 'centre' would either be a shock, or a pleasure depending on where your Marmite sensibilities lie..."
I attempted to contact Lola’s Cupcakes on Twitter to ask why they had plagiarised my words and not credited me on their recipe. They batted me away until eventually they sent me a short, dismissive email.
Thanks for your tweet.
However, just to confirm our Marmite cupcake recipe was actually developed in house, without any reference to outside cookery books and is based on our standard range of chocolate cupcakes.
So I used the only power I have: I blogged the situation. Other bloggers and food writers took up my cause on Twitter, where my blog was retweeted hundreds of times. The Evening Standard and the Daily Mail contacted me and ran stories about the plagiarism.
When it comes to recipes, there are certain rules: ingredients cannot be copyrighted, but the main body of text, the ‘literary’ part, the words and phrases, can be copyrighted.
After reading the Daily Mail story, one commenter posted something like, “Well what does she expect? Once something is on the Internet, it’s a free for all”, expressing a commonly-held but mistaken view.
Legally, this simply isn’t the case. The minute that something is published in a tangible form, the copyright belongs to the author, whether that is in digital form, or paper or carved in stone.
When it comes to recipes, there are certain rules: ingredients cannot be copyrighted, but the main body of text, the ‘literary’ part, the words and phrases, can be copyrighted. While it could be said that there are no truly unique recipes, merely variations upon the same theme, I would argue that a Marmite cupcake is a fairly original idea!
There are conventions when it comes to recipe writing, too. If you are making small modifications to an existing, published recipe, you can state, ‘adapted from’ or ‘based on’. If you are making bigger changes, for instance swapping basic ingredients or changing the formula, the writer should declare, ‘inspired by’. It’s only fair. One recipe writer told me that if you change three ingredients, it becomes ‘your’ recipe. It’s a matter of conscience. Technically and morally, Lola’s and Marmite should have said at the very least: ‘inspired by msmarmitelover’. But in any case, under no circumstances should anyone copy exact phrases from a published work without attribution.
So, what happened in the end?
Marmite asked for a conference call with me. While they continued to deny any plagiarism of the recipe or my words they did ask what they could do to apologise. I asked for three things: that my forthcoming baking book MsMarmitelover’s Secret Tea Party (Square Peg 2014) be sold at Lola’s outlets (a bit cheeky perhaps, but I had to try!); that they credit me and, finally, that Marmite should give me some paid work. They did offer to give me some work but simultaneously threatened that Lola’s were thinking of suing me for libel. The upshot was: I never did do any work for them.
Recently, I discovered yet another of my Marmite-related recipes (I do write recipes using ingredients other than Marmite, I promise!) had been copied wholesale, without a word changed. I spent ten days making my own Marmite from scratch, only for a comment below a recent piece in The Guardian to reproduce my recipe without crediting my site as the source. I then pasted the words from my recipe into Google and up it popped… everywhere! Without links or credit given. One chef claimed it was her ‘own’ personal recipe for Bovril (unlikely, as Bovril contains beef extract).
What is to be done? It would cost me a small fortune to pursue all those who are ripping off recipes. The Guild of Food Writers has a resident solicitor but when I called him for advice, he said that he’d never heard of anybody winning in court in this country for recipe infringement.
As food writers, we want to share our recipes and spread our ideas. We encourage ‘fair use’, where our recipes are referenced but not copied in their entirety. We all stand on the shoulders of cooks who went before us, but a little credit goes a long way.
Kerstin Rodgers’ latest book ‘Get Started in Food Writing’ (Hodder, 2015) is out now. You can follow her blog on msmarmitelover.com.
© Kerstin Rodgers
Find out more about the importance of your copyright by checking out the ALCS 'Wise Up To Copyright' information.