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Pirates in the kitchen: Recipe copying 'rampant' online

Study shows that copied and reposted recipes often appear higher in search results than the original versions. Do recipe publishers care?

Editors' note: The report cited in this article originally misstated the name of one of the Web sites studied. The correct Web site is

The next big copyright battle may be fought in the kitchen.

Content tracking company Attributor recently conducted a study to get an idea of how frequently online recipes are copied and reposted to other sites. What it found might concern some recipe publishers.

Attributor collected all the original recipes that appear on, and The software then checked those recipes against what was available elsewhere on the Web, looking for what they call matches--or instances in which two recipes are similar enough to be possibly copyright infringing.

For the purposes of the study, Attributor researchers defined a match as any two recipes in which at least 50 percent of the content was identical. Then they looked more closely at the matches with low percentages of similarity and threw out those they thought couldn't be considered clear cases of copyright infringement.

Based on the results, Attributor found that copying recipes online is "rampant," said Rich Pearson, senior marketing director for the company. Attributor found just over 10,000 copies of recipes that originated on the three sites. In more than 60 percent of those cases, the reposted recipes weren't attributed to their original sources.

That's not shocking. But in an online world, having your content copied and posted elsewhere isn't just a matter of not getting credit where it's due. It can also hurt a company financially.

'Sploggers' eating up Web traffic
As part of the study, Attributor also conducted searches for titles of some of the recipes that were being reposted on multiple sites. In many cases, the infringing copies of recipes appeared higher in search results than the original versions. For instance, a Google search for chicken salad tea sandwiches (a recipe from Gourmet magazine available on Conde Naste site Epicurious) brings back a copied version of the recipe several places higher than the original. Similar results came back for recipes published by all three of the sites studied.

Attributor estimates that is missing out on a little more than 800,000 site visits each month and that Epicurious is missing out on 400,000 monthly visits because of sites Pearson calls "sploggers" that essentially thrive by copying other sites' recipes and optimizing them to appear high in search engine results.

Attributor dashboard
A screenshot of Attributor's dashboard. A recent study by the content tracking company showed that copied and reposted recipes often appear higher in search results than the original versions.

With numbers like that, one might expect online publishers to keep a close watch on how their content is being reused. But recipes are a different beast from other types of content. For one thing, copyright law on recipes isn't all that straightforward. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a list of ingredients isn't protected by copyright law, but the instructions and any other "substantial literary expression" that go with it may be. But does directing a reader to whip egg whites at speed 4 on his stand mixer constitute "substantial literary expression"? Possibly. But it wouldn't be the easiest copyright to enforce.

Another issue is that recipe sharing isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Dig around in just about any kitchen and you're sure to find a box full of recipes that have been copied from cookbooks and cooking magazines. Sharing recipes has been part of the culture of cooking for decades, if not centuries.

Even the very nature of recipes is based on taking others' ideas and making slight changes to them to suit individual tastes. Katherine Bell, online managing editor for America's Test Kitchen, acknowledges that recipes are a unique case when it comes to copyright infringement because just about every recipe is based, at least in part, on a previous one. She gives the example of a recipe for no-knead bread that appeared in The New York Times. The recipe proved wildly popular, and recipes for similar breads have been popping up in cooking sites and magazines since.

"It started as the idea of one person in New York and now it's a whole new genre of baking," Bell said. "That just illustrates how every recipe owes a debt to something before it."

Navigating murky waters
Still, when a company's business is based on driving traffic to its Web site, it's bound to take notice when other sites start chipping away at its profits. The traffic Epicurious and Allrecipes are losing to other sites translates to lost annual revenue of $1.6 million for Epicurious and $3.1 million for Allrecipes, according to Attributor. Those numbers are admittedly a rough estimate, but there's no question that lost traffic means lost money for Web publishers.

However, content publishers don't only deal in traffic and ad sales. Even they recognize that recipe sharing, when done minimally and with proper attribution, can be good for business.

"To some extent, it's great if people are talking about our recipes in other places," said Bell, from America's Test Kitchen. "It's publicity." But there's a limit to what is acceptable use.

America's Test Kitchen is a small outfit compared with the family of cooking magazines from publishing behemoth Conde Naste. It sells a bimonthly magazine called Cook's Illustrated and charges an annual subscription to access its recipes online. Being a small company that puts a lot of labor into developing each recipe--America's Test Kitchen can sometimes test a recipe up to 100 times before it's been perfected--it's in a unique position.

"We have more to lose (than other recipe sites) if people are posting our recipes online because we have fewer recipes, we've invested a lot in every single one, and there would be no reason for people to pay a subscription if they can get our recipes for free," said Bell.

If a Web site has reposted one of America's Test Kitchen's recipes, the company will ask that the site take it down. "But in practice, we're not out there patrolling the Web," Bell said.

Few sites, if any, would go after an individual for posting a recipe on his or her blog or MySpace page. Sharing recipes is, after all, part of the tradition of cooking. But sites are still struggling with defining the line between what's acceptable or even beneficial copying, and what's damaging their brand or profits.

Copyright management made easy
Attributor doesn't try to decide what kind of copyright infringement is tolerable. Rather, it tries to make it easier for publishers to track who is reusing their content and in what way. With Attributor's software, publishers can use a dashboard to quickly see where their content is being reposted, whether it's been attributed to them, or whether ads are being sold against their content.

Attributor even makes it easy to take action when content owners find instances of their content being reused inappropriately. The software looks up contact information for each site and gives the owner the option to send an e-mail asking for a link back to his or her site, propose a revenue share or send a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice.

Attributor representatives say they don't believe the ability to track where content is being reproduced will necessarily lead to more lawsuits. Rather, the company sees it as a way for content publishers to get leads for business partnerships, and as a way to track what content is resonating with the public.

The company hopes to have similar services for individuals by the end of the year.