How does one collect and compile recipes for publication in an ethical way?

Some cohorts want me to help build a website of culinary recipes, and their plan for content is to rely entirely (initially at least) on data scraped from a competitor (whose web application is not particularly good). Putting SEO concerns completely aside, I can't go forward with such a plagiarist action.

So what alternative can I suggest to them? How does anyone collect and claim the right to print/upload recipes, whether for a cookbook or web application?

(Crowdsourcing is something to use, to be sure, but that suggestion was already shot down because it would mean a launch with no material, which presents no attraction for contributors in the first place.)

  • 3
    copyright.gov/fls/fl122.pdf I guess federal law says that "Copyright law does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients." So that's something, at least.
    – Jellicle
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 14:58

4 Answers 4


Having a competitor with a poor web interface is not justification for plagiarism. However, it's clear that you understand this.

To build your own library of recipes, seek used cookbooks that are so old that copyright no longer applies. Used book stores and thrift shops are a good source for this, as are online bidding sites like eBay.

The challenge with older recipes is that the cooking times and temperatures are not precise, having been written in mind of cooking atop a cast iron stovetop fueled with wood.

However, once you know the ingredients for a given recipe, then it's simply a matter of looking up the recommended cooking time and temperature.

  • In addition to used book stores, the internet archive (archive.org), Project Gutenberg, Wikibooks (part of wikipedia), and Google Books are all excellent sources of out-of-copyright and public domain material. Note that copyright date depends on the country the work was originally published in. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 19:33
  • I suppose the local library would have some cookbooks, as well.
    – Vzzdak
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 20:45
  • @Vzzdak Most libraries would have gotten rid already of cookbooks that old. Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 17:34

I own quite a few cook books full of mouthwatering images that contain recipes that do not work. So as a father who has to create tasty meals for a bunch of otherwise grumpy kids, I can only beg you to:

Collect recipes from whereever you want. Cook them yourself, and then publish the instructions as you have found them to work.

Because that is what I expect from the author of a cook book: that they don't just copy/paste recipes that they have never tried themselves, but that they know how to cook and share their knowledge.

  • 5
    A local TV chef did a very funny episode once where he followed instructions exactly as written. Typos and all. Clearly, proofreading is a good idea, and testing is an even better idea.
    – RBerteig
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 18:24

I am not a lawyer. But it's my understanding that recipes, in their barest form, cannot be copyrighted, as they are a description of a method of accomplishing something. What IS copyrightable is the specific text that expresses those instructions, as well as any accompanying images, etc. There may be other aspects of the way the recipe is organized that is copyrightable. Scraping a website, yielding identical text and images, will surely fall afoul of copyright law, if nothing else for the images alone. The directions of the recipes may be purely descriptive of a process or may be more creatively expressed; the creative ones will also trigger copyright protection.

Thus, as I understand the laws, I can publish on my blog or in a cookbook any recipe I want, as long as I express it in my own words and use my own images.

You should consult with a lawyer regarding recent decisions on the copyright of data. For example, the Yellow Pages company often tried to copyright the contents of phone books to prevent competitors from producing similar listings. They've had mixed success. See, for example, this blog post which addresses UK law and which suggests that databases, that is, collections of electronically-accessed data, are offered at least some copyright protections. This means that scraping a competitor's site might be illegal even if none of their content is individually copyrightable. I'm not up to date on the US laws or the laws in other jurisdictions on this matter. You could be on shaky grounds. The laws might be contradictory: it might be the case that simply making a database of public-domain works makes it difficult or impossible for others to do the same. Such is copyright law in this age.

The best way to build a collection of recipes is to curate the initial collection manually. No matter where you get the recipes, review each one, rewrite all the copy, test them to see that they work, adjust the language to account for regional differences (i.e. I hate it when a recipe calls for, eg, a stick of butter... I have never seen butter sold in sticks.) Once you have a collection of recipes you've actually worked on, I am pretty sure all legal and ethical concerns would be alleviated. As usual, the easy path is not the best path.

  • 2
    Buying butter in sticks must vary by region. I regularly buy a package of four sticks (one brick = four sticks), so that I can refrigerate what I'm not using.
    – Vzzdak
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 15:34
  • @Vzzdak hence why I mentioned it as an example of regional differences ;) It's a common problem when internet recipes refer to products by names not everyone understands, or using measurements not everyone recognizes, or by implicit pack sizes when pack sizes are not ubiquitous. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 15:37
  • 1
    In Germany, for example, databases are protected for 15 years similarly to copyright. And we don't have sticks of butter, nor do we have pints, ounces, gallons or pounds. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 18:25
  • Thanks. I am persuaded that manual curation is really necessary. As for butter, though, I can only remember seeing recipes call for it by weight (e.g. 1/2 lb of butter), not in units of 'sticks'. (And I'm American.)
    – Jellicle
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 1:39

I assume, because you have a direct competitor, that your recipes would be quite specialised, for example, focused on using peanuts or Indian.

Having bought a large number of cookbooks over time, I tend now to focus on particular series or 'brands'. One series we have about ten of is the 'Australian Woman's Weekly' because the instructions are clear, the pictures are good, the food tastes great and, most importantly, the recipes work. They have been tried out extensively. Even a cook like me can produce delicious food.

Copying someone else's site just isn't going to work. Following their recipes so that you can take appropriate photos and then re-writing the text might.

Conducting a competition to get recipes can not only give you material for publication but can attract a committed audience. (Think about 'charity' recipe books where the people that contribute to them will buy multiple copies to give to others and spread the word.)

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