Presidential Recipe Thievery

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this story. The Short version of it is that Cindy McCain, wife of Presidential candidate John McCain, had several “family recipes” posted upon their campaign website, and had submitted a recipe to the New York Sun. The only problem? They were nearly word for word the recipes found on the Food Networks Website.

Two thoughts immediately come to mind:

First: If you read anything on a Presidential Website regarding food, rest assured it is there to do one thing and one thing only – to craft an image. The chances of the wife of a high profile politician to do regular home cooking is nearly laughable. The recipes – any recipes – are there merely to give the impression that cooking on a regular basis is done.

Second: Technically speaking, they did nothing wrong. Recipes are not copyrightable, and thus impossible to plagiarize, at least not from a legal point of view. The Food Network has as much claim to the recipes for Passion Fruit Mousse as does Cindy McCain, which is to say, none at all.

The “issue” here is that a politician (and yes, the spouse of a Presidential Candidate is as much of a politician as the candidate themselves) was caught lying. Quelle surprise!

Thanks to Jack from Fork & Bottle for the heads up

Update: David writes in -

hi kate:

While lists of ingredients may not be subject to copyright laws, if you copy word-for-word someone’s writing, as in directions (like they did), that’s problematic. The law states “substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions” is/are protected.


David’s perspective is true. The real issue in recipe plagiarization comes from the interpretation of “substantial literary expression”. Here’s the instructions from one of the recipes in question:

In a large salad bowl, whisk together lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Cut cabbage in 1/2 lengthwise and slice into thin ribbons. Place cabbage, carrots, basil, mint, and cilantro in the bowl with the dressing. Toss to combine. Set aside.

Pour the sesame seeds out onto a plate. Press the tuna into the seeds on both sides, pressing gently so the sesame seeds stick.

Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch non-stick pan over medium high heat. Add fish to pan and cook until rare, about 2 minutes per side. Alternatively, cook until done to your likeness. Slice thin and distribute among 4 serving plates. Serve with a generous portion of Napa cabbage slaw.

Does this have substantial literary expression? Or is it just a list of instructions? I tend to lean towards the later, but that’s certainly my own point of view. By law, you can’t copyright instructions.

Recipe copyright is a tricky issue, because there are a great amount of people out there actually innovating and trying new and different things with food and committing them to a recipe format. A handful of people are out there, taking credit for other people’s work. What’s the solution for this? I’m not sure. Copyrighting instructions and ingredients is NOT the answer, but with all of the discussions taking place regarding recipe theft, it does necessitate some scrutiny.