Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Adaptation (Theft?)

One Sunday in Bolinas, 2011

This morning I was reading a poem. It almost matched my thinking, but not quite. Still, I liked it. I thought of posting it here, but then realized I am not clear on what is appropriate or legal in such matters. I'm sure I've already made my fair share of mistakes.

Then I thought of all of the blogs that are based on recipes written by someone else and then adapted to suit the blogger and their post. This seems to be fully accepted as long as it is an adaptation of some sort and the original source is noted.

I wondered how Ruth Stone would feel if I adapted her poem, just changed a few words, toyed with her line spacing a bit, so it would better suit my post, and me. Would it be okay if I pulled a photograph from one of my fellow blogger's sites and decided to adjust the contrast a little and crop it in Photoshop for a post of my own?

Are we being unfair to original recipe writers? Is there such a thing as an original recipe, or has it all been done before?

See the photograph up there? It is a brunch offering at a cafe I like in Bolinas, CA. At first I thought, no I won't order it, I love beans and greens, but it is something I make at home. Then I changed my mind, wait, I will order it, see if they do anything better than I do, and steal their ideas to use at home. Yes, perfect! I was excited.

Their beans were better. I tried to ask about them, get some details, but I couldn't get a straight answer. Perhaps they wanted to keep their bean recipe a secret, or it was a locals only scenario.

Maybe we should just accept that what we make public is no longer our own. If it's a big secret, then we should keep it that way. Or maybe we should simply follow our moral compasses and everything will be fine.

I found a Q&A with Amanda Hesser, addressing such matters. My favorite part was this anecdote she shared:

People should take a step back and think about how they’re living their lives. There’s this great chai supplier in Connecticut. The first time I ordered the chai by phone, she told me she would send me an invoice. I said, “You mean, you’re going to send me the chai before I pay?” She replied, “Yes, because if you don’t pay, it’s really your problem, isn’t it?”
So what am I really getting at here? I don't know. My mind has drifted to how I will replicate those delicious little pinquito beans from Coast Cafe. Like I've told you before, this is just a workshop. Playing around with thoughts and ideas is what I do here, but I also see this as a space for conversation.

So what do you think...about delicious little pinquito beans, secret recipes, adapted recipes, or anything else you are in the mood to share? Seriously, I'd like to know.

Thanks for reading.


  1. well, i am ALL for secret recipes. a friend sent me a recipe yesterday that i will not share, because it's not mine to share.

    the lines blur more when we adapt and share recipes that already exist, and it's a problem i'm still - 5 years later - not sure i can answer properly. ditto for art, for poetry, for passages that speak to us...tricky questions. and then there are those turns of phrase that seep into your writing voice (or into your visual thinking), things you feel come from you, but in fact, come from extensive, wider reading/looking/speaking. i absorb things from everywhere, and somehow, i hope, they all spill out as my own but it is inevitable that, from time to time, one could be seen to be breaching ones own well-meaning rules. it's hard, no?

    interesting, interesting...look forward to others thoughts here in your workshop.

    (and now i will be very conscious of not referring to my own blog as a workshop which it, too, is!)

  2. Lucy, Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. So many interesting points. It's inevitable that what we experience becomes who we are and what we communicate. I absorb so much more per day now than I did just five years ago. There's no way I can recall precisely where I heard or saw everything that crosses my mind. And please, tell me you will refer to your blog as your workshop. I certainly do not feel I own this concept.

  3. now you have me scratching my head... so far i thought sharing a sample of something that has been made public & sourcing it was allright... but adaptations, you're right, I'm unsure what to think.
    Now I feel a little guilty about my gluten-free adapted recipes ! (however the color of a painting or the content of a poem wouldn't hurt me physically, gluten does)
    I'll come back to read the thread. very interesting topic.

  4. I've often wondered too what counts as adapting as I often have the feeling of not being original enough with other people's recipes so simply credit the author. I always try to change the wording though so it's not purely lifted. Your post on cakes helped me to have the courage to try new things out though and I've recently been experimenting with different kinds of flour whih has been fun. Thanks for the inspiration, I think your last few posts have been some of your very best!

  5. The internet is a great place to launch new ideas, but an equally wonderful place for existing ideas to spread and morph. One of the things I enjoy about blogs is when incongruous ideas or images are placed side by side, casting new light on each other.

    There's something called Fair Use within U.S. copyright law that "allows for the legal, non-licensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work based on a certain criteria," according to Wikipedia.

    Anyway, I think I used Fair Use today when I took comic panels from a book (copyrighted by the illustrator), which were based on photos (copyrighted by the photographer) of a street theater performance (public, free) celebrating the anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall to illustrate an new, unrelated blog post (copyrighted by me).

    Mind-boggling? Yes. But cool, too, to participate in the creation, expansion, collaboration and reinterpretation of all this information and art.

    The flip-side of this shiny coin is that not a penny ended up in anyone's pocket, which is, in my opinion, the biggest problem the internet poses for artists and writers.

    In a perfect world, Denise, I would pay you for being able to read your thoughtful, well-written posts. In the meantime, the internet will continue to cheapen your words and mine.

    P.S. As for the widespread reproduction of recipes, I quote the U.S. Copyright Office:

    Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work.

    They way I read that: The words you choose to explain how to incorporate butter into eggs is copyrighted, but the butter and eggs are not.

    Share on, my friend!

  6. I don't believe in secret recipes!

    I would enjoy eating in a restaurant with you - I can tell we share some of the same angst when ordering.

    David Lebovitz has a great post somewhere about the issues you raise...he covers the law and the spirit of the law. Check his archives.

  7. hilarious, your thoughts on...

    i like to think nothing is original, wo what the fuss. i bribe myself a little in thinking, nothing was original no more before the w3, we just didn't know so world wide spread about it...
    i'd say, go for the lovely beans, pose them, expose them, 's what we all do.

    being a librarian at heart (well, yes), i believe in giving everything shown it's proper author's name. really, what more can we do... we are so desperate to share (part of our human condition, huh?)

    [also, derek jarman's thoughts on authenticity spring to mind]

  8. I'm supposedly working so can only say this much: I want those beans, secret or not, and I'm loving Blood bones and butter. Thank you.

  9. I have read that Q&A with Amanda Hesser before and I smiled when I read that anecdote you're quoting. It also made me sad because for a moment there I thought that person was naive. Cynicism got the best of me.

    I post recipes on my blog that I have adapted from others and recipes that have been in my family for years. Should I stop doing both because I feel like I'm stealing or because I'm afraid that someone else will steal from me? Should I stop getting inspired by those who know so much more than I do about cooking? That's a resounding no. I love to share and that's the point of starting a blog. Giving credit is extremely important to me, it's a code of ethics, I believe, that should not be broken.

    This is the article by David Lebovitz that I believe "A day that is desesrt" is talking about. Every food blogger should read it.

    Denise, your posts are so thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing them.

  10. Woolf said it well; hardly nothing is original anymore. I do believe in ALWAYS giving credit though.
    And I loooove Bolinas; the place I learned to surf (sort of at least :-) )

  11. It's a great anecdote, and makes it our duty to make it our problem. I guess, for poems, it's ok to post a link to them, but not to type them out, as surely the author would have put the poem onto the web if he/she wished to. And a poem is too personal to adapt, unlike the universality of a recipe. Where does that leave pastiches, I wonder, that essential artform?

  12. I'll tell you one reason recipes shouldn't be secret, even, or especially, restaurant recipes. Many years ago a woman wanted some chili with a secret ingredient. Special chili! And they wouldn't tell her that the secret ingredient was peanut butter, and she died. (Yes, knowing she was allergic, she made a big mistake ordering a secret ingredient of any kind.)
    Adapting recipes is commonplace. Newspapers do it every day. Just give credit to the original cook.
    I wish I knew what was in those beans!

  13. I was just thinking about this subject yesterday. I'm new to blogging and I wanted to make sure that I was doing the right thing when posting recipes. I ended up reading the same interview with Amanda Hesser. I thought it was especially interesting what she had to say about "voice" and the role that plays in writing a recipe. The idea of "voice" is a difficult one to define, but I think we all have an intuitive sense of it. It then becomes our own responsibility to make sure that we are using our own voice and not just changing a required minimum number of items in order to make it legal.
    I also think it's so important to give credit. The difference between acknowledging the ideas that inspire you and trying to pass them off as your own is HUGE.

  14. Law and rules aside...Not that the adaptations aren't any good, but I think things get diluted.

  15. Denisse,may I have your address, i would like to send my little to you. if you like, you can leave it under my commnet.

  16. I gotta run to work... but will send you some thoughts later... a good discussion all around.

  17. HI -
    I read your blog often but have never commented, so here goes....
    i don't like the idea of secret recipes. Food is what literally sustains humans on this planet, so until we all live off vitamin supplements alone (hopefully never) why should people keep a good thing under wraps?

    I often try to replicate what I eat in restaurants, and sometimes the restaurateurs even share with me their recipes if I know them well enough! Generous, I guess!!

    A lot of my other recipes are just lists...a bit of this, a bit of that, simply because I never measure, hardly ever make the same thing twice, and I sort of assume no one else does (but that's probably not true)

    Very interesting ideas you've brought up.


  18. Firstly a small confession - in my small snippets of spare time I've been holding off catching up on your posts as I feel as though they deserve reflection and deeper thought - in a good way. It's like when you have a really good book and you hold off until you have enough time to really lose yourself in it.
    Anyhoo - interesting post - is it adaption or theft - what is indeed original? I recently listened to a great podcast on originality and copyright in art. An example they gave was the recent decision against artist Richard Prince. I tend to agree if you put it in the public domain, you are surrendering a degree of ownership; but also believe that where possible one should credit the original source. Do unto others as.... I do like the quote from the Amanda Hesser Q&A. Perhaps the world would be better for it if we all took a similar approach to the chai lady....

  19. Thanks for this post. I once asked a friend for the recipe of one of the dishes she shared with me and she wouldn't do it. The family recipe had been a secret for years. This kind of hurt my feelings. I mean, I really think it is fun to share how things are made... but people have other ideas.

    My thoughts about posting recipes, patterns, and other creative works are to make sure the author receives the credit. By doing so, I feel like I'm not stealing and I'm offering them flattery and appreciation for their time and effort.

    I loved the quote you shared about the honesty policy with the chai. Amanda was really right on with that one. What a freeing way to live.

  20. LOVE secret recipes. And that photo is delish. Screams spring morning at the breakfast table!!! xoxox

  21. ou! this is interesting. what great responses. of course, we must give credit when we know we have used another's photo, words, recipes. but we must also realize that what we hope are our original ideas, creations, recipes, etc...have most likely been thought, created and cooked many times before.

  22. Very interesting topic. Your posts are so thought-provoking.

    San Diego Mobile Notary

  23. Hi Denise, Regarding recipes, I am all for sharing. (although when I had my catering company, I did not.) Hardly anything is "original"--we are all drawing on the same huge creative well and offering our interpretations. it can get murky, though.

    so, with food and recipes, I choose to put my experiences out there, crediting those who have inspired me, hoping to inspire others, and hoping that my recipes/photos would be respected in similar fashion.

    the culinary arts have a broader range of what is acceptable. I can't recall an instance of recipe plagarism--although it likely exists. there are plenty of secret recipes out there--often an integral part of someone's business.

    I had to smile at the obscure response you got from the cafe in Bolinas about their beans--it so fits the Bolinas way.

  24. I love sharing recipes and encourage my readers to make them their own. That being said, if it was from a published work that I was charging money for I wouldn't be so excited to see it used like that. I recently found a recipe from the Chocolate and Zucchini Cookbook, posted verbatim on the internet, with no credit given. Totally illegal. As for photos, that is totally unacceptable, blog or no blog and there are laws to back it up. Bloggers will come after thieves with a vengeance and hell hath no fury like Pim finding a stolen photo.

    Adaptations, are a murky area for me. I have spent countless hours trying to come up with original ideas. I have dozens of notebooks filled with my brainstorm scribbles. I've got two and a half pages alone, dedicated simple to interesting sorbet combinations. I use my best friend as a sounding board and am always in the kitchen testing and retesting ideas. This is honestly all I think about. That being said, I've done it twice, once for a blogging event that required it and the other for a cake, back when I was a terrible baker. I gave proper credit, but still felt awkward and weird both times. They weren't me and I still feel like they don't really belong on my blog. That cake it the reason I have dedicated an enormous amount of time to understanding baking. I guess I just feel like since I would never do it in my column, why would I do it on my blog?

    This really is a tricky subject Denise. I think all in all, I just want people to be excited about cooking and to be respectful if they intend to adapt them. The worst mistake a blogger can make is claiming ownership of something that isn't their own. It may be the internet, but it is still theft/plagiarism.

    I do go on, don't I?

  25. Wow, so many wise and considerate comments. Thanks for sharing all of your thoughts and opinions. I agree, this is a tricky topic. Thank you, Magda, for sharing the link to the David Lebovitz article that Lecia (A Day That is Dessert) mentions. It seems we are all pretty much on the same page and want to do the right thing. The bad eggs aren't visiting Chez Danisse, or they aren't commenting. This suits me just fine. I trust Mise will solve the pastiche conundrum on Pretty Far West. Thanks, Mise. I'll sum things up by stealing Rachael's words "Mind-boggling? Yes. But cool, too, to participate in the creation, expansion, collaboration and reinterpretation of all this information and art." Thanks, Rachael. RW, you owe me.