points us to yet another story about another person in another industry whining about not getting enough monopoly privileges from the government. This time, believe it or not, it's bartenders wanting to protect mixed drink recipes
. Seriously. Unfortunately, the writeup at the Atlantic, by food writer Chantal Martineau seems to get an awful lot of points about intellectual property totally mixed up. The article slips back and forth between trademark law and copyright law (which are extremely different) and then has this whopper:
The publication of a recipe can be legally protected, but the "expression of an idea," as the lawyers in the seminar explained, cannot. It's the reason musicians can't be sued for covering another band's song in a live show.
So many things wrong in two short sentences. First of all, no, the publication of a recipe cannot be protected. Straight from the US Copyright Office
: "Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection." That said, if there is "substantial literary expression" in, say, the description of how to prepare the recipe that part
(and that part alone) could be covered by copyright, but that should have little impact on bartenders making similar mixed drinks. Also, copyright is, in fact, supposed to protect the expression, contrary to the statement above. This is the whole basis of the idea-expression dichotomy
, which Martineau seems to get backwards. As for why musicians can't be sued for covering another band's song in a live show, that's got nothing to do with the difference between an expression and an idea, and everything to do with performance rights licenses from venues to PROs like ASCAP and BMI that (in theory) are supposed to cover the copyright (yes, there is one) on the composition.
As for the meat of the actual article, there's a lot that's very troubling in there, though Martineau doesn't seem to challenge any of the claims made (given the confusion on the topic, perhaps that's why). It starts off with a story about a trademark violation, when a new Manhattan lounge called Painkiller was threatened with a cease-and-desist from the distillery Pusser's, who had apparently trademarked a drink called Painkiller back in 1989. But the only issue there is the name (which is trademarked), not the recipe. So it's odd that this is used as a lead in to a discussion about copyright.
The actual story focuses around an apparently angry bartender, Eben Freeman, who seems to be upset that he doesn't get enough credit for inventing certain drinks:
After the seminar, I spoke to Freeman, who admitted he came up with the idea for the talk after becoming fed up with other bartenders and establishments taking credit for and profiting from his recipes and techniques. (Fat washing, for example, the process by which a spirit can be infused with, say, bacon, was pioneered in part by Freeman, yet is often attributed to others.) "Someone needs to get sued ... to set a precedent," he told me.
"In no other creative business can you so easily identify money attached to your creative property," Freeman went on. "There is an implied commerce to our intellectual property. Yet we have less protection than anyone else."
Of course, Freeman is exaggerating the claim that bartenders "have less protection than anyone else." He has just as many protections, it's just that you can't copyright a recipe. If it's true that he really did come up with a novel and non-obvious process
for "fat washing" (I really don't want to know), then he could have applied for a patent
on it, but in an article confused about trademarks and copyright law, no one even mentions patents. Perhaps Freeman should have done some research first.
From there the article goes off on a totally random tangent about how big liquor companies have been hiring young bartenders to become "brand ambassadors" where they're expected to come up with a signature drink using the specific brands in question. But, the accusation is, these bartenders "don't have the experience" to do so, and instead just copy someone else's recipe and tweak it. Of course, that's not illegal. At all. And it's not a problem. It's how innovation happens
. You build on the ideas of others, and you tweak it to try to make it better. There's nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, it should be celebrated. In fact, we've seen how the very same lack of copyright protection over recipes has helped food and restaurant trends grow
and spread in valuable ways. Instead, this just seems like a complaint about someone who doesn't like young bartenders and the way they work. But that's not an intellectual property issue.
Over at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein does a nice job pointing out that, just as with fashion copyright, there's no evidence for a need for a "drink copyright,"
As is always the case with granting individuals legalized monopolies over intellectual property, we should start by asking whether consumers are suffering because bartenders don't have enough financial incentive to innovate interesting new drinks. Given that the past few years have seen an incredible explosion in creative mixology, that's a hard case to make. The status quo seems perfectly good at encouraging innovation -- so much so that the drinks have gotten increasingly comical.
And it's not just that there's no evidence that consumers are being harmed by the current arrangement. There's clear evidence that they're benefiting from it. I live in Washington. But a lot of really good cocktails are thought up in San Francisco. Happily, I can drink a lot of those cocktails, as the most successful recipes quickly proliferate.
But, of course, the reason that Freeman's complaint and Martineau's article don't ask those rather basic questions, is that it appears both don't realize that intellectual property is supposed to be about incentives, rather than protectionism and making sure that some guy who created something "gets his proper credit." Freeman's complaint comes off more as someone who just doesn't feel he's received enough recognition for his work as a grumpy old bartender. But that's got absolutely nothing to do with intellectual property law -- patents, trademarks or copyrights -- and should have no bearing on whether or not he likes young bartenders coming up with derivative drinks.