Friday, October 13, 2006

You've Heard of "the Iron Chef" - Now Meet "the I.P. Chef"

First it was biochemistry, then it was software and business methods, and now . . . cooking?

In the recent issue of Food & Wine Magazine, Pete Wells writes about the recent (and controversial) issue of applying principles of intellectual property to the culinary arts. The story begins at the Moto restaurant in Chicago, where avant-garde chef Homaro Cantu serves a dessert that includes pink cotton candy printed on a tiny sheet of edible paper that tastes like cotton candy as well. When you look closely at the paper, there is the following (edible) text:

Confidential Property of and © H. Cantu. Patent Pending. No further use or disclosure is permitted without prior approval of H. Cantu.
Cantu, who is considered by many as a cutting-edge chef, has decided to take the plunge into the world of I/P and has started copyrighting and patenting his cooking techniques. To date, he claims to have filed 14 patent applications (3 of them, including the edible paper, can be viewed here), and numerous copyrights on his culinary works.

Like software in the 80's, chefs have traditionally worked on an "open-source" model, where ideas were freely borrowed and expanded upon. In some cases, the ideas were stolen outright. Accordingly, influential people in the culinary world are turning to patents and are proposing changes to copyright law to allow chefs to own their recipes the same way composers own their songs. Under the proposal, anyone who wanted to borrow someone else's recipe would have to pay a licensing fee.

Cantu has even contacted the American Red Cross about using edible paper as a lightweight form of famine relief. Ultimately, the idea is to have paper that is "printed" with amino acids, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and even medicine. If the idea succeeds, relief agencies might be able to airlift a strip of paper instead of bulkier and heavier foods like MREs or bags of rice.

And Cantu is starting to get support from some very influential people. Steven Shaw, who is a cofounder of eGullet and former lawyer, has spearheaded a challenge to the traditional ban on recipe copyrights. While he was first skeptical, he eventually had a change of heart:
Then one day I was sitting there . . . and I thought, Why not? It doesn't make any sense. The assumption is that a list of ingredients is like a formula, as opposed to literature or art or craft. But I think serious recipes really are a form of literary craftsmanship. You can copyright the world's worst photograph, but you can't copyright a recipe, or its expression as food? That's absurd!
Shaw is looking to hold a summit meeting with leaders in the culinary world to establish a workable model for copyrighting food. One of the proposed changes includes modifying the copyright code to make cuisine a subdivision of the existing category for sculpture or recognizing recipes as a form of literary expression. For enforcement, Shaw wants to run the system like ASCAP, who collects composers' royalties for public performances of songs.

This idea has even sparked the interest of Nathan Myhrvold, who's an amateur chef and founder of Intellectual Ventures. Myhrvold has already begun registering new patents and buying up existing ones at an aggressive pace.

The article may be viewed here, and is great Friday read (long, but worth it).

See Ed Foster's InfoWorld Blog, which refers to culinary I.P. as "Intellectual Property Madness."

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