Tom Lee has a great post on this New York Times article, which looks at the pressing problem of culinary piracy. Tom points out that the law is very clear—you can’t prevent other people from copying your recipes—and that’s a good thing:
All of this ignores the public domain innovations that Ms. Charles benefits from, royalty-free: the cocktails her bartenders serve, the system of reservation-making she presumably employs, and, most amazingly, the Caesar Salad recipe that she says her mother got from another restaurant, but which she’s now suing her sous chef for using. Diffuse borrowing seems to be okay; borrowing too much from one place isn’t, I guess. But where do you draw the line?
The story mentions that nondisclosure agreements are coming to more and more kitchens, but fails to point out why this is: as screwed-up as our IP system is, it actually dealt with these questions before the food industry was sufficiently powerful to corrupt the process. That’s why lawyers are now trying to shove all of this stuff into contract law, where you can get away with much more. In other words: it’s because the sorts of claims Ms. Charles is making are untenable under IP law.
There’s no question that the sous chef is being tacky by copying Charles’ restaurant, but it would be very silly to open a Pandora’s box by punishing him for copying paint colors. IP laws are there to encourage people to make new things; the market’s there to get them to make those things better. These distinctions can get blurry in the world of novel cuisine. But restaurants are fundamentally in the business of selling food, not seeking rent on ideas about food. This story is asinine, and Pete Wells would have done better to highlight how stupid everyone involved is being instead of just making the guy getting sued sound like a jerk.
Update: Oops, forgot to actually include the link to Tom’s entry. My bad!