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Are chefs protected by copyright? 

by Maria Teresa Manuelli

Does a form of copyright protection exist for safeguarding the creativity of a chef? Can copyright claims be made for recipes? This has been a much-discussed topic in recent years in the gastronomic field that until now has not found a definite answer.

Now a book published in the Alma-Plan series deals with the topic of copyright protection for chefs, offering tools to chefs and foodbloggers for understanding how one's job can be considered in all respects a creative work and, therefore, protected from imitations.

After three years of research, the authors, Carmine Coviello and Davide Mondin, lawyers and Alma professors, have tried to shed light on this complex and still unexplored question with the volume “Food Law: the Protection of Creativity in the Kitchen.”

Chef Davide Scabin of the restaurant “Combal.Zero,” who has made creativity and research a distinctive trait of his cooking, has written the preface since cues within the book are taken from two case studies related to his traditional dishes.

When a recipe is worthy of protection

“First of all,” said Carmine Coviello, who is specialized in the sectors of art, music and entertainment, “it is necessary to decide what elements make a dish a creative work.”

That is, there must be a personal contribution from the author, in such a way that the gastronomic work is a step forward compared to existing knowledge.

“Creativity,” he continues, “can be manifested in the use of ingredients never before considered or already known but used in an unprecedented way, in the originality of the physical structure or the appearance of the dish or product and in its name.”

Therefore, if the gastronomic creation is intrinsically innovative, then it can be protected even in legal terms.

The protection may concern, first and foremost, the “recipe,” understood as an abstract explanation of how to obtain a dish or a product. In the same way, therefore, as a literary or musical work, if in the form of a written text, file, video, etc.

And if it possesses certain characteristics in terms of expressive originality, regardless of the novelty of the gastronomic information contained.

“The culinary art is perhaps the most complete of the arts because it involves the five senses: taste, smell, sight, touch and even hearing,” he said. “An art that is consumed. The first traces of this right to protection can be found even in a third century A.D. code, preserved in Venice’s Biblioteca Marciana, in which it is clearly stated that a cook who invents a recipe should enjoy ownership rights to it for approximately two years. Then there is the more recent ruling of the Court of Milan, the 9763 from July 10, 2013, which condemns the author of a book for having copied several recipes from a blog.”

The dish as a work of design
Then, there are the other forms of protection, such as a patents, used, however, for products reproduced industrially. One famous example are the “Marille” by Giorgetto Giugiaro for Voiello, filed in 1983. Or those for filing secret recipes (drinks or certain bitters) which must meet specific requisites and procedures.

Lastly, there is also the problem of a dish considered as a work of design, where it is not the recipe itself being considered, but the final composition. “In this case,” concludes Coviello, “one must appeal to the Industrial Property Code.”

A registry of international recipes

“Freedom exists if there is protection,” adds Coviello. “Not as a conclusion, but as a starting point from which one can go and rediscover, reinvent and modify the recipes in an endless creative game, making changes and innovations. Ending with, perhaps, a large registry of international recipes, which collects traditions from around the world and contributes to the growth and development of the world’s cuisine.”