Food Writing Ethics: The Currency of Colleagues, or Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

by Jeanne on January 17, 2012

Professional ethics is one of my particular areas of interest.  I used to teach work ethics to college students years ago, and it’s still a topic that I’m passionate about.  This past year, I have been seeing a lot of behavior in my current field (food writing and blogging) that has caused me to go “hm.”  It’s been on my mind a lot lately, and so I thought I would start an occasional series/conversation on this topic on my blog.  Below is the first installment on this topic.  Please let me know your thoughts and experiences.  And please be aware that I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have a lot of opinions on the topic :).

This weekend I got a call from someone who is updating a book about a certain kind of baking.  This book is about wheat baking.  This person asked several questions about my gluten-free recipe (on this blog) for that particular thing.  They also asked questions about gluten-free baking mechanics and ingredients, etc. They said that so far, my version was the best they had come across.  I told then that I was flattered and that I was was happy to help and answer questions.

It turns out that this person is planning to put a gluten-free version of the thing they write about into the second edition of their book.   As the conversation progressed, this person revealed they were thinking of putting an “adapted” version of my recipe in their book.  I asked what the “adaptation” would be.  They said that they were going to recommend using a commercially-available gluten-free flour mix instead of my flour mix.  They seemed to think that this “change” made it a different recipe and indicated that they wouldn’t need to directly acknowledge the fact that it was my recipe.  I pointed out that it would still be my recipe and that I would like credit for it in the book.  This person got flustered and back-pedaled a bit, and said that they didn’t agree, that it would be a tiny part of the book–“just one page”–and that it wasn’t that important.  I also got a bit flustered as I pointed out that actually it was important to me. (I’m not that great at standing up for myself, although I am getting better at it.)

Let’s stop for a second and talk about the whole concept of “adapting” recipes.  This is a big topic in the food world.  Especially nowadays when people have blogs where they take recipes from printed books or from other blogs and post them.  Technically, you can’t do this if it is a direct cut-and-paste of the recipe–because that infringes upon the rights of the publisher.  At the same time, recipe writers cannot copyright a recipe (although I think you can copyright a method–it’s confusing).  So, we have come up with a way of posting recipes without getting into book or blog copyright territory.  This is by “adapting” recipes.  If you take a specific recipe, change a couple of ingredients and some of the method, then you can say that the recipe is not quite the original recipe, but is close enough that it is “adapted from” the original recipe and you can post it on your blog without worrying about legal or ethical repercussions.

Back to my story.  The change that this person was proposing as an “adaptation” is not an adaptation.  It is the same thing as, for example, using King Arthur wheat flour in a recipe that calls for Pillsbury wheat flour.  It’s the same recipe. Eventually, the person said that they would thank me by name in the book.  But, I got the feeling that they were thinking of thanking me generically in the acknowledgements, versus identifying my recipe as mine and mentioning my blog and book in the process.  The difference between the two types of acknowledgements is significant.  We ended the conversation somewhat uncomfortably.

I came away from this conversation feeling disturbed.  I got the distinct impression that this person kind of thought I had just fallen off of the turnip truck and felt like they were doing me a favor by even considering my recipe.  First and foremost: I (and I’m guessing, you) do not like to feel like I am being taken advantage of.  If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know that I am very happy to share what I know.  And I am happy for folks to reproduce my recipes for non-commercial purposes on their blogs as long as they ask me for permission, link to my page, and make it clear that it’s my recipe.  I spend a lot of time, energy, and money on developing these recipes even though I choose to “give” many of them away on this blog.  And I’m happy to do this because I feel like it’s important to share information and ideas.

That said, I insist on professional acknowledgement where acknowledgement is due.  I am a former academic and this point was drilled into me each and every day during my time in that field.  You do not use a source in your work without citing that source in a recognizable way.  It is what is right and it’s the very least that colleagues can do for each other.  None of us recipe developers are working in a vacuum.  We learn from each other and we help each other along the way.  And it’s important to thank each other in a real way.  And if the help someone gives you furthers your work in a public way, then it’s important to be public in your acknowledgement of that person and their ideas.

One way to look at it is that in the world of colleagues helping colleagues, acknowledgement of sources and ideas–in this case, recipes–is a type of currency that must be paid.  It’s the professional thing to do.  The ethical thing to do.  The right thing to do.  And the collegial thing to do.  And, to me, it is the easy thing to do.  I am always surprised when people are reluctant to give credit where credit is due.  It’s just about the easiest (and cheapest) thing someone can do in this or any other field and it creates a tremendous amount of goodwill.

Update: After writing this post and thinking about it all weekend, I contacted my agent about the situation this morning.  After hearing the details, she made the decision to contact this author and their publisher and tell them that my recipe is “not up for grabs” for them to use in their book.  I agree with this decision.  Initially, I was open to having this person use it in their book as long as they gave me credit.  Also, I was reluctant to make a stink.  But now I realize that there is something bigger at work here–a lack of conviviality on the part of the caller, and the concept that this person felt that they could just blithely take my recipe, use it in their book, and be vague about its origin.  These recipes are a type of property–intellectual property–and people cannot cherry-pick property off of the Internet and use it for their own advancement.

What are your thoughts?




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