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Is It Legal to Copycat Restaurant Recipes?

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There’s a proliferation of books, both printed and electronic (downloadable from the Web), that purport to tell you how to copy your favorite dishes from your favorite restaurants. Some of these are better than others, but they all raise the question: Is it legal to “copycat” recipes in this way?

These days, with the music industry going after people who use file-sharing services to illegally post songs for others to copy, and with prominent anti-copying warnings from the FBI stuck on every movie DVD we rent or purchase, it’s a natural question. People wonder if they are breaking some law by cloning a restaurant’s most famous recipe–whether it’s by passing around the instructions or by actually cooking and serving it to friends.

Mind you, I’m no lawyer. But I’ve talked to a couple of lawyer friends as well as to a number of restaurant managers. The bottom line is this: If you cook up your favorite steak or lobster dish (or whatever) copied from Big Name Restaurant–even if it’s an exact duplicate–you need not worry that a SWAT team is going to break down your door and haul you away. Nor will an army of lawyers be descending on your kitchen.

Now, if you decide to open your own restaurant with dishes copied from well-known chain restaurants, and if you are so un-subtle as to give them the same names as the originals, you might have trouble on your hands! Short of this unlikely scenario, you’re probably safe. But we’re not talking here about going into business with other people’s recipes, are we? (If you’re contemplating anything along that line, then you really must consult an attorney.)

Cooking for friends can be fun. It can be more fun if you serve them dishes that are exactly like ones from their favorite restaurant. If that’s your intention, and you’re doing it in a private setting, you can set your mind at ease about the law. The only question then becomes, what dish do I want to clone, and where can I get a genuine recipe?


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