Not That There's Anything Wrong With That
Jessica Seinfeld's cookbook is unoriginal, but it's not plagiarism.
Jessica Seinfeld did not write the new cookbook Deceptively Delicious. A team of experts large enough to form a soccer team—a writer, chef, nutritionist, art director, photographer, agent, editor, project manager, and then some—did. Originality and authorship are not salient features of most celebrity or spouse-of-celebrity cookbooks, yet instead of taking Seinfeld to task for that, the media have latched on to a peculiar claim: Seinfeld has, of late, been accused of plagiarism. The allegation: She lifted ideas from Missy Chase Lapine's The Sneaky Chef, which was published earlier this year and is also about hiding vegetables in kids' food. Lapine's contention, published in the Independent, is that "There are uncanny similarities between my book and Ms. Seinfeld's," like the fact that both books suggest concealing cauliflower puree in mashed potatoes. But the plagiarism claim is nonsensical. In order to understand why, however, we first need to understand plagiarism.
Many people equate plagiarism with copyright infringement, yet these are different issues. Copyright is a technical, legal issue. It's about ownership of work—whether written, musical, sculptural, or otherwise. If you copy this article, or a substantial portion of it, without permission, and you sell those copies (stop laughing), you've violated copyright laws. The same applies to audio, video, and other media. However, plenty of works are not protected by the copyright laws, such as the works of Herman Melville. Nothing published before 1923 is protected. Go ahead, make copies.
While Melville's work may not be protected by copyright laws, it is entirely possible to plagiarize it. Just try to pass off Moby-Dick as your own and see what happens. Plagiarism isn't about copyrights, it's about dishonesty. It's about pretending someone else's ideas and work are your own, even if those ideas are paraphrased. (If you paraphrase, you're no longer committing a copyright violation because copyright protection is about the form of expression, not the idea itself.) Plagiarism can't exist, however, if you acknowledge your sources: As long as you say where you got your ideas from, it's just called research. Moreover, it's impossible to plagiarize common knowledge: You can't steal the idea that the sky is blue, because everybody already knows that.
Copyright protection is weak when it comes to recipes. The U.S. Copyright Office states, "Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds or prescriptions, are not subject to copyright protection." Explanatory notes—like the paragraph before the recipe where the author reminisces about dinners on the family farm—are protected, but the recipe itself is not. That's why Colonel Sanders has had to work so hard to keep his recipes a secret.
Plagiarism is another story, though. Last year, a chef named Robin Wickens was the toast of Melbourne, praised for the avant-garde culinary creations served at his restaurant, Interlude. I'm the director of the eGullet Society, a culinary arts nonprofit that hosts online forums. One of our members, a chef in New York named Sam Mason, saw several photographs of dishes at Interlude and noticed striking similarities to dishes at WD-50 in New York and Minibar in Washington, D.C. Other members soon noticed parallels to dishes at Alinea in Chicago.
Interlude's dishes were not just inspired by WD-50, Minibar, and Alinea. They were carbon copies, right down to their arrangements on the plate and, in a couple of cases, the use of identical, specially ordered serving pieces. (You can compare the photographs here.) These dishes were not common, like French onion soup or Peach Melba, but were, rather, original creations of three of the most cutting-edge chefs working today. Chef Wickens, by serving those dishes without acknowledging their inventors, was committing culinary plagiarism.
Jessica Seinfeld, however, has done no such thing.
Steven A. Shaw, an attorney, is the author of Turning the Tables: The Insider's Guide to Eating Out and the director of the eGullet Society.