Who Owns That Cocktail? The Debate Continues

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This week an Atlantic Food Channel article (Chantal Martineau's "The Era of Copyrighted Cocktails?") created a small stir, dare we say, and raised an important question: how should bartenders approach the problem of intellectual property? When your friendly neighborhood barkeep might also be a brand ambassador for Big Liquor, it's all too easy for recipes to be copied ad infinitum with next to no credit reflected back on the original creator.

But is this really a bad thing? Drinkers from around the Internet weighed in:

Don't fight it. Journalist Felix Salmon calls the idea of copyrighting cocktails silly—"not least," Salmon writes on Reuters.com, "because the last thing the world needs is bartenders suing each other over copying cocktails." He argues that free sharing of drink recipes strengthens the industry overall:

The fact is that the current cocktail renaissance is coming about because, rather than despite, the fact that cocktail recipes are easily shared and remixed, and because the rise of blogs is making doing so easier than ever, helping drive a surge in demand for well-made, well-mixed drinks.

Consumers benefit! The Washington Post's Ezra Klein expressed "distress" at the cocktail copyright concept. He's happy that he gets to drink great cocktails in Washington even though the rockstar bartenders ginning them up live in San Francisco:

In a world where the originators of those cocktails can sue—or, even worse, a world where the people who say they're the originators of those cocktails can sue—those drinks stay off the menu. And that doesn't even get into the world of trolls—people who would try and make their money by copyrighting dozens or hundreds of drink recipes and then suing bars that made anything similar.

Even Gawker offered its take. Staff writer Ryan Tate is concerned about what would happen to our bars if cocktails became intellectual property:

So the next time you ask your bartender for the proportions on that yummy concoction of mezcal, sorrel, hibiscus bitters, Chartreuse, egg whites and whatever other trendy ingredients you're guzzling, don't be surprised if you just get an icy stare in return. It might seem counterintuitive, but bars might soon become some of the most secure storehouses of intellectual property in the world. Doesn't that sound like a relaxing and fun sort of place to unwind?

These cocktail concerns reflect broader food-world intellectual property struggles. "The cloak of secrecy is thick in muffin land," ABC News wrote last week, referring to the Thomas' English Muffin scandal in which an employee came close to revealing treasured company secrets, which The New York Times reported on earlier in August. (We published Frank Bruni's take on the topic here.) Two days ago, we heard about how New York's V-Nam Café allegedly ripped off their bánh mì recipes from the owner's former employer, a restaurant called Baoguette. Intellectual property experts debated who owns the "Korean taco" concept at the Times's Freakonomics blog in early July. Hell, Food & Wine magazine announced the "New Era of the Recipe Burglar" in 2006. Paranoia abounded as a Chicago chef advertised cotton candy labeled with a copyright notice ("patent pending," the label added).

Yet when examining food copyright issues, the Freakonomics blog pondered a seeming contradiction: "Why does creativity thrive in the culinary world despite the rampant copying that takes place?" A few reasons stood out. The writers pointed to the fact that recipes don't produce exact copies, to how much the contexts of different restaurants vary, and to the strange social etiquette of copying and attribution that has occasionally developed among high-end chefs.

Despite very real proprietary concerns, what emerges most powerfully from the dialogue is the immutable reality that food and drinks are not easily defined concepts. Cocktails evolve. Ingredients change. And at the end of the day, copying a Korean taco or a drink may be as natural and unstoppable as hunger and thirst.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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