“I can see why you want to bookmark all of them in one place,” Lin said during a phone call from her home in Sacramento. “I wouldn’t go and create a [website] that mines all of that content and puts it into a new thing for people to access for free. There’s just so much copyright infringement on there. So I just don’t understand why that kind of process didn’t go through the developers’ minds.”
After a presumably lengthy development period, the Canada-based Recipeasly announced a relaunch on Sunday in tweets from at least two of its creators, Tom Redman and Jack Read. Redman trumpeted that Recipeasly would “fix online recipes” by removing the clutter. Both men said the site would give users access to their favorite recipes “without the ads or life stories.” They asked for feedback and retweets.
They got a lot of the former, most of it critical of a site that’s built on the backs of recipe developers and bloggers, many of them people of color who rely on their own websites for income and to provide intimate cultural and culinary information in the “life stories.” In the Recipeasly model — based on conversations with food writers who tested the site before the founders took it offline — users can paste in a URL, and the site will strip the recipe of ads, long intros and everything else, save for the information found in the “recipe card” section of a coded webpage, which usually includes a photo, ingredients list and cooking directions.
The resulting Recipeasly page doesn’t even include a mention of the recipe developer’s name, just a small link button back to the original recipe. Numerous critics were labeling this outright theft of intellectual property, although copyright protections for recipes are not so clear-cut.
Neither Redman nor Read responded to emails or tweets from The Washington Post seeking comment. But Redman spent a fair amount of time on Sunday trying to explain the business model for Recipeasly as the criticism mounted. He apologized to “content creators” and said the site’s founders had “nothing but respect and admiration for the time, money, effort and years that going [sic] into creating great recipes & websites.”
Redman also noted that “imported recipes are only visible to the user who imported them — similar to if a user had printed the recipe or copied it into a doc.” He added that Recipeasly and its creators “do not make any money off of this. There is *no* revenue, much less profit.” Redman even suggested that the site was built for bloggers and recipe developers to monetize their work.
The comments fell mostly on deaf ears. Some bloggers, for instance, screen-captured pages from Recipeasly. One page clearly indicated that users can make their recipe collections private or public.
If the scraped recipes are public, they have the potential to hurt the very people who created them, said Lin, the founder of Healthy Nibbles. For starters, should Recipeasly build a large and loyal user base, the recipes on its platform could rank higher in Google search results than those on websites where the recipes were originally published. That could diminish traffic to the original sites and therefore hurt ad sales. Right now, Lin said, she lives off the ad sales from her site. She declined to say how much money her site generates but said it’s in the six figures, annually.
Just as troublesome for bloggers, if Recipeasly built a loyal following, its creators could use the site to sell products, ingredients and tools to home cooks, thereby creating revenue streams for the founders. An active user base, uploading thousands of recipes a month, could generate data that could be of value to outside marketers and businesses. All of this value, food bloggers note, would be based on recipes that Recipeasly’s founders did not create.
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, recipe developers cannot copyright a mere list of ingredients. But they might have a copyright protection claim, the department’s website notes, when “a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a collection of recipes as in a cookbook.”
For food writers, the issue is whether their recipes qualify as an original or “literary” expression. This is where it gets murky with copyright law. Even though the final dish may be original and unique to the writer, or to the writer’s family, the building-block language used to compose that recipe doesn’t usually qualify for copyright protection.
“You have to remember that it is an exclusive right because copyright, like a patent, it’s a monopoly,” said Kandis M. Koustenis, a Washington attorney who focuses on intellectual property and copyright law. “You’re granting someone the exclusive right. So you cannot tie other creators and authors and recipe writers from the ability to use these basic building blocks. And that comes up in fashion and that comes up architecture.”
Recipeasly is not the first website and/or app to come under criticism for scraping recipes from food bloggers, online magazines, newspapers and the like. In 2019, Apple removed Copy Me That from its App Store after recipe developers complained to the tech giant. Copy Me That offers premium memberships for $12.99 a year (or $24.99 for a lifetime membership), which, among other things, allows users to scale recipes they’ve saved or create customized shopping lists.
“The app removal was instigated by a handful of website owners who filed complaints with Apple. They say it infringes on their copyrights when you save their recipes into your own private recipe box,” Copy Me That said in a statement at the time.
“Of course, bloggers, photographers and recipe creators deserve to make money from their hard work,” the statement continued. “This is why the Community recipes encourage people to visit the original websites, why even private recipes have a link back, and why you have to visit the original website in order to create your own copy of a recipe.”
One look at the Apple App Store finds numerous other tools that help consumers scrape outside sources for recipes. They go by names such as Cook’n, Recipe Keeper, RecipeBox and the like.
They’re all designed to collect a user’s favorite recipes in one location, a convenience for those who don’t want to comb the web or a library of cookbooks for their go-to dishes. But the apps and websites have increasingly become a source of tension between those who just want recipes without the stories and advertisements and food bloggers who rely, in part, on the stories to generate web traffic, which in turn generates revenue. Stories, bloggers will tell you, contain keywords, demonstrate authority and generally appease the Google algorithm gods in a way that can place these blogs higher in search results.
But it’s even more complex than that. The stories are personal. They’re cultural. They’re often told from the perspective of women, immigrants and people of color who have created and invested in a platform to share their stories. The recipe aggregator sites, bloggers note, basically tell the creators that their stories have no value. It’s the same message America has told immigrants and women for centuries, now just in electronic form.
“Guys, if I’m sharing something like a bolo bao (pineapple bun) recipe, you’re damn right I’m going to mention that bolo bao was a childhood staple and how my mom used to buy these for me from Chinatown,” Lin wrote in an Instagram story, the words superimposed over Recipeasly’s homepage, which read “Your favourite recipes without the ads or life stories.”
“I want you to know why this recipe matters to me as a Chinese America[n] and why creating the recipe brought back memories,” Lin continued.
Hours after Recipeasly relaunched, it was back down, its creators seemingly crushed by the negative response. It wasn’t clear whether the site would return. In a tweet late Sunday, Redman said there will be changes to the site, “if we come back.”
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