Elizabeth LaBau’s holiday cupcake recipe was so popular it crashed her food blog.
It was clever, after all. LaBau, who runs SugarHero.com, had figured out a way to make edible snow globe cupcakes by coating small balloons in sheets of gelatin and letting them harden into translucent domes.
After lots of trial and error, she posted the the recipe to her website in late 2014. It went viral in the days that followed, garnering about 740,000 shares on Facebook — the traffic caused her blog to go dark temporarily — and tripling her site’s income that month. She would go on to describe it as her “signature recipe.”
LaBau continued to ride the recipe’s success last Christmas, posting a tutorial video showing how to make the cupcakes. Like her original post, the video was a major success for the do-it-yourself dessert maven, drawing millions of views in December alone.
Then along came Food Network with a video of its own, LaBau says in a new lawsuit filed in federal court in California.
About three weeks after she published her tutorial, LaBau alleges, Food Network produced a how-to video on snow globe cupcakes that was so similar that it constituted copyright infringement.
LaBau’s lawsuit calls the minute-long, made-for-Facebook video a “shot-for-shot” theft of her own. The camera angles are the same, she says, along with the colors, lighting, text and other elements.
Food Network “willfully and intentionally sought to appropriate” LaBau’s work “for their own profit without bearing the cost,” the lawsuit reads. “The time commitment of recipe development and the cost of ingredients, coupled with the time cost of photographing and videoing the cupcakes, was a substantial investment for Plaintiff, an individual who runs a website based solely on her own work.”
A Food Network spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Because recipes can’t (for the most part) be copyrighted, LaBau’s lawsuit focuses specifically on the video that helped popularize the snow globe cupcakes. It calls the video a “proprietary work” and says Food Network’s version infringes on multiple copyrightable aspects of it.
LaBau says her blog began as a passion project that bloomed into a full-time job “through years of hard work and late nights.” So when Food Network posted its video, it was not just taking her ideas but hurting her brand and depriving her of income, she alleges.
“Competing with numerous corporate food websites, often backed by large companies with deep pockets, is very difficult as an individual and requires endless work,” the lawsuit reads. It cites several awards and accolades SugarHero has won in recent years, including being named “Best Baking Blog” by Better Homes and Gardens in 2015.
LaBau said Food Network’s video caused her “severe distress,” distracting her from the normal business of running her blog, which features recipes for hundreds of holiday-themed desserts and other sweets. She said she contacted Food Network asking for it to remove the video or at least give her credit and attribution for her work, but to no avail. Her lawsuit seeks as much as $150,000 in damages per copyright infringement.
The two videos follow the same format as many cooking tutorials found on food websites large and small, with each step in the recipe demonstrated in short, user-friendly segments as upbeat music plays in the background. Food Network’s version shows more professional-level studio production, but some moments in the footage are strikingly similar to those in LaBau’s video. Whether those similarities constitute copyright infringement is, of course, up to a federal judge to decide.
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