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Giving up recipe secrets

Question:

I introduced a successful line of homemade pies to a part-time employer to supplement my income. The owners are selling, and want me to disclose my recipes in written form as an asset to be sold with the business.

– Deborah Mills, Owner, Food Flowers and Friends Catering, North San Luis Obispo County, CA

Answer:

Like many of us in the restaurant business, we are often too busy to think about issues like intellectual property in advance and then they catch us off guard. Of course, the obvious answer is that you need a good lawyer if you want to make a case that your recipes are yours and not the property of the business.

Mark B. Stumer, a New York-based attorney specializing in both restaurant and intellectual property law, says that there are a couple questions that will come into play:

  1. Are the pies actually intellectual property? This is a tricky area since recipes and techniques are not easily copyrightable or patentable. The idea for a pie or list of ingredients alone can not be copyrighted, though the full recipe can be. Patents are reserved for things “useful, novel and non-obvious so a pie doesn’t fit the bill there.
  2. Did you develop the pies while in the employ of the business or did you bring the recipes with you when you started the job? If you created the recipes as an employee of the company or first wrote them down during your period of employment, the business’s owners have a stronger case under “work for hire” than if you brought your recipes with you to the job. Keep in mind, though, that if you created the recipes before you took the job, they have to have been in a “tangible medium of expression” (i.e. written down or recorded) if you are to make the case that you own the copyright.

With the information age, intellectual property is an issue that will only become more prominent in the restaurant business. More here.

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