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.
For starters, the timeline is all wrong. Cookbooks take a year or more to produce. Lapine's book came out in April, and Seinfeld's came out in October. (Disclosure: Seinfeld's book was published by HarperCollins, which is also my publisher. However, I have no relationship with anybody involved in the Seinfeld project, and I write my own books.) There was simply not enough time to incorporate Lapine's work into Seinfeld's. In fact, Seinfeld's agent told CBS that her book was already being bound when Lapine's came out.
Much has been made of the fact that Lapine originally showed her book proposal to HarperCollins and that HarperCollins rejected it, only to sign up Seinfeld soon after. To those unfamiliar with the world of book publishing, this may seem meaningful, but it's very unlikely that anybody at HarperCollins would have leaked the Lapine proposal to the Seinfeld team, particularly since the premise of the Lapine book is not original, either. The idea of sneaking vegetables into kids' food is a time-honored parenting trick, and Lapine's book was not the first: The largely unsung book Sneaky Veggies by Chris Fisk, for example, came out in August of 2006.
Spend 10 minutes comparing the Seinfeld and Lapine books, and you won't be able to seriously contend that there is plagiarism. (And in all the articles I've found about this tempest in a teapot, not one has pointed to a specific example of plagiarism.) Sure, the two books are based on the same unremarkable, unoriginal idea. And a handful of recipes employ some of the same obvious tricks (mostly based on hue, such as hiding sweet potato puree in a grilled cheese sandwich or spinach in brownies). But the books are quite different. For example, Seinfeld's recipe, titled "Mashed Potatoes," calls for simple cauliflower puree. Lapine's recipe for "Mystery Mashed Potatoes" specifies "White Puree," which is a separate recipe earlier in the book that consists of cauliflower, zucchini, and lemon juice. In a table comparing recipes, a New York Times blog notes that both books contain "Peanut Butter and Jelly Muffins" without noting that, among several other differences, Seinfeld calls for carrot puree while Lapine calls for "orange puree," based on sweet potatoes with the addition of carrots. Not that either trick is a revelation—fleshy vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots have long been ingredients in cakes, pies, breads, and muffins.
Differences don't end at the recipes. The Lapine book is a straightforward cookbook. Seinfeld's is much more elaborate, from its unusual, hardcover-over-spiral binding (in the style of a family scrapbook), to its gorgeous line art and photography, to a writing style that captures the fantasy of Seinfeld as the reader's BFF. Every potentially similar recipe I've compared has had more than token differences—they seem to have been built independently, from the ground up, using different voices. Of those PB&J muffins, Lapine tells the story of Alison, who hates sweet potatoes but was fooled by the muffins: " 'Yum,' she squealed, 'these are great!' " Seinfeld says only, "I don't know who likes these more, kids or grown-ups."
Lapine, who has surely benefited from the publicity given to the Seinfeld book, seems particularly upset that Seinfeld got a spot on Oprah while she didn't. Oprah portraying an unoriginal idea as original does not constitute plagiarism by Seinfeld. But more to the point, there are reasons Seinfeld got on Oprah and Lapine didn't. They're surely the same reasons the publisher bought Seinfeld's book but not Lapine's: Jessica Seinfeld is gorgeous, charismatic, and married to an über-celebrity. Of course Oprah is going to put her on. Of course any publisher is going to buy whatever book she wants to produce. Of course Seinfeld's book is going to sell better than a book written by a normal person.
Plagiarism is a serious accusation. It can get students expelled; it can ruin writers' careers. And if it's occurred, it should. But the news media should take plagiarism seriously enough to not use the word unless it truly applies. Many things can be said of Seinfeld's book and its runaway success. A sad commentary on the state of parenting? I think so. A triumph of celebrity over substance? You bet. Further evidence of the decline of the West? Definitely. But an act of plagiarism? No way.
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.