Edible Secrets: Food Plagiarism In The Era Of Molecular Gastronomy

In Jay Rayner’s recently published The Man Who Ate The World, the Observer food critic’s diary of a tour through the world’s most notable (and particularly, most expensive) restaurants, the author recounts an incident where a Japan-based chef was charged with stealing the dishes of a Washington D.C. restaurant. The accusation surfaced on eGullet, which has subsequently chronicled other instances of culinary plagiarism, usually involving molecular gastronomy.

This issue of menu copying came to the fore in late 2006 into mid 2007 (when Marcel of Top Chef may or may not have appropriated a dish from wd-50), inspiring a whole spate of articles exploring the subject. The basic format went like this:

1) Wow, look at these unprecedented accusations of stealing recipes!
2) Used to be, there was a canon of dishes with the air of historical permanence
3) Now, with advent of molecular gastronomy, there’s a new emphasis on innovation
4) And originality is now where the money is, for these chefs at least
5) But, uh, how are you going to copyright food, exactly?

The last point is true enough; copyrighting recipes is relatively uncharted territory, especially when one is dealing with dishes that have been adapted and are not direct copies.

None of this ambiguity is stopping chefs from taking action. Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago has filed a patent for his edible menus (specifically, the ability to print text and images on an edible structure), and Missy Chase Lapine of sneaky-vegetable-cookbook-for-kids fame is suing Jessica Seinfeld for publishing a cookbook based on the same concept.

Let’s consider a case that’s much older than molecular gastronomy or even Jessica Seinfeld: Coca-Cola’s secret formula. This well-written examination of intellectual property law through the lens of Coca-Cola gives us some insight into how the rest of this food plagiarism stuff will turn out. Coca-Cola has a copyright on the product’s aesthetics, a trademark on the name, a patent on the method it uses to make the bottles and whatnot, but the formula itself, the key to the company’s success, has no legal protection whatsoever. It’s merely a trade secret — this is not a legal term — and the only protection Coca-Cola has against copiers is its ability to…keep the secret. If the company filed a patent on it, they’ve have to publish the formula and the game would be over.

For most chefs, the money isn’t in keeping their recipes secret and their dishes unique: it’s in providing high-quality food and service at a good value and maintaining it over time. The molecular gastronomists who invest considerable resources in innovation may be out of luck: anyone can take a picture of a heretofore unique dish at dinner and post it online along with the menu description, and chefs with enough patience and skill can reverse engineer it and serve it for breakfast, or change an ingredient or two and serve it for lunch. Molecular gastronomy dishes may simply be too fluid, malleable and impermanent for the law to touch, but it will probably take a whole bunch of lawsuits to find out for sure.

The Man Who Ate The World [Amazon]
Sincerest Form, Interludes after midnight [eGullet]
Can you copyright a dish? [Guardian]
New Era of the Recipe Burglar [Food&Wine;]
Can You Have Your Intellectual Property and Eat It Too? [Wired]
Marcel Vigneron Is Not A Plagiarist [Gurgling Cod]
System and methods for preparing substitute food items [USPTO]
Jerry Seinfeld Lawyer Hits Out At Cook’s ‘Bogus’ Lawsuit [Post-Chronicle]
Understanding Intellectual Property Rights through Coca Cola [Zvulony & Co.]

wd-50 [MenuPages]
wd-50 [Official Site]
Moto [MenuPages]
Moto [Official Site]

[Photo: Moto’s edible menu and copyright notice with ramps on the side, via steve renaker/flickr]

Edible Secrets: Food Plagiarism In The Era Of Molecular Gastronomy