Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious is unoriginal, but it's not plagiarism.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Jan. 8 2008 5:47 PM

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

Jessica Seinfeld's cookbook is unoriginal, but it's not plagiarism.

Yesterday, Missy Chase Lapine, author of the cookbook The Sneaky Chef, sued Jerry Seinfeld and his wife, Jessica, claiming that Ms. Seinfeld's cookbook, Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Getting Your Kids Eating Good Food, plagiarized content in The Sneaky Chef. Last October, Steven A. Shaw explained why Ms. Seinfeld's book was not plagiarism. That article is reprinted below.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.