Bad idea of the day: copyrighting cocktails

By Felix Salmon
August 31, 2010
Chantal Martineau stopped to think about her timing, as she wrote her piece for the Atlantic on a movement pushing for the ability to copyright cocktails. Intellectual-property protection isn't getting great press this week, as Paul Allen has turned overnight into one of the world's most gruesome patent trolls.

" data-share-img="" data-share="twitter,facebook,linkedin,reddit,google" data-share-count="true">

I wonder whether Chantal Martineau stopped to think about her timing, as she wrote her piece for the Atlantic on a movement pushing for the ability to copyright cocktails. Intellectual-property protection isn’t getting great press this week, as Paul Allen has turned overnight into one of the world’s most gruesome patent trolls.

But ever since the seven-year-old sitting next to you in elementary school put his arm around his paper to stop you from copying his work, humans have felt very protective of their ideas, and very angry at anybody who they think might be copying them. As a result, mixologists are now joining fashion designers in looking for copyright protection for their inventions.

It’s all very silly, not least because the last thing the world needs is bartenders suing each other over copying cocktails. Even Susan Scafidi, the person mostly responsible for pushing the ability to copyright fashion design, realizes that copyright is a pretty narrow and limited protection, and that we shouldn’t try to apply it willy-nilly to anything remotely creative. Here’s what she told me back in 2007, telling critics to look at “legal and social realities”:

Furniture is protected by design patents (overall shape), copyright (surface designs), and trademark — not to mention utility patents (innovative useful elements). One lawyer who represents a number of furniture clients described the process of protecting their designs to me as “triage,” identifying what needs to be protected and sending it to the appropriate government office. Cuisine has a small amount of protection from copyright (recipe collections), and much more from the social norms against copying among creative chefs, particularly when it comes to signature dishes. Since my father is a serious amateur magician (and I confess to having performed a bit myself years ago), magic tricks are my favorite inapposite example. Not only is the literature copyrighted, but many effects are deliberately kept secret by magicians, and unlike fashion can’t be torn apart at the seams by interlopers …

Every industry is unique, and most copyright protection is one-size-fits-all.

Cocktails are clearly closer to recipes — in fact they are recipes — than they are to the kind of things which are normally copyrighted, like books. What’s more, they don’t scale. Fashion designers can sell the same design at many shops and to many different customers around the world, just as publishers can sell the same book through thousands of different outlets. But a bartender can only make cocktails one at a time, and there’s no way that I’m depriving a bartender in DC of any revenue if I order one of her cocktails from a bar in New York. As a result, anybody trying to prove damages is going to face an uphill task.

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.

Mixologists like Eben Freeman who want copyright protection seem to me a bit like the small neighborhood coffee shops who got scared when a Starbucks opened up across the street — only to find that demand for their own good coffee went up, rather than down, as a result. The more people copy your cocktail, the more demand there will be for your cocktail, and the happier everybody will be. Embrace it, don’t fight it.

7 comments

Comments are closed.