A recipe is a list of ingredients with directions for preparing or arranging them to get a particular outcome. It is most often used in cooking, but can also be used in such areas as craft mixtures. Although the list of ingredients in a recipe cannot be copyrighted, the directions are copyrightable.
According to the U. S. Copyright Office, a list of ingredients alone cannot be copyrighted. A copyright is extended to the unique writings of a writer, not the title or a specific idea of how a recipe will be produced.
Recipes usually include a list of ingredients to work with. The list alone cannot be copyrighted, which is why certain popular recipes or specific combinations of food may be printed in different cookbooks. For example '1 cup tea, 1 slice lemon' alone can easily be found in multiple cookbooks. It is the description of how they are assembled, put together or used that makes a recipe unique to the writer.
Whereas the list of ingredients cannot be copyrighted, the procedure could be. Taking the example of tea and lemon, if an author provides instructions about how to steep tea and add the lemon, another writer cannot repeat the same procedure word for word and publish it as her own. The intellectual effort the original writer gave to create the dish in a certain way makes it different from another recipe with the same ingredients. Each writer has her own voice and tone on how to prepare and finish a recipe.
Cookbooks contain multiple recipes and information on preparing foods. Generally, a cookbook is an original compilation and can be copyrighted. Only the publisher or author may give permission to republish recipes from a cookbook, unless it is in the public domain.
In the United States, cookbooks and recipes that were written before 1923 are in the public domain. This means the recipes can be reprinted. Once a recipe enters the public domain there is no infringement on copyright for reprinting it.
Tweaking a Recipe
Although many recipes have similar or the same ingredients, it is the description of how those are prepared that makes a recipe copyrightable. You can adapt a published recipe with these suggestions to make it your own and thus avoid copyright infringement issues. Add a favourite ingredient or brand name instead of those listed. Show the reader how to make the recipe using a different appliance. Use your own voice and write out the steps as you prepare the recipe. You may have a better, quicker or more efficient way to prepare the dish or you may put the ingredients together in a different way.