Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Case of the Sneaky Cook

If you want to get something published, it doesn't hurt to be Jerry Seinfeld's wife. At least that's what Missy Lapine apparently thought when her idea to sneak healthy ingredients into children's foods showed up in a cookbook by Jessica Seinfeld. And when an imprint of the same house that had recently turned down Lapine's The Sneaky Chef published Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious, Lapine was convinced that Harper Collins and Seinfeld had stolen Lapine's idea.

So Lapine sued--and lost.

As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. That's why ideas belong to everyone and cannot be copyrighted. Sneaking healthy ingredients into children's food is an idea. There was no evidence that Seinfeld or Harper Collins got the concept from Lapine's manuscript, but they were acting legally if they did.

Beyond the basic idea, the two cookbooks were very different. As the judge described it, The Sneaky Chef covered thirteen methods for sneaking healthy ingredients into children's foods, was printed in muted colors, and was dry and text-heavy with a lecturing tone. In contrast, the judge said that Deceptively Delicious concentrated on one method (pureeing), was bright and cheerful, and provided simple, step-by-step recipe instructions for busy parents.

But if you can't copyright ideas, what can you copyright? You copyright expression, which covers the words you choose to present the idea and the way you arrange those words. (The exception is when there are limited ways to say something, such as describing how to make a particular recipe.)

Still, how do you know where the courts draw the line between ideas and expression? Find out next month when I cover the case of the aging protagonist.

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Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her new book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013) is available from and other retailers. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court's First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at


  1. My mom was sneaking healthy ingredients into my food when I was a child, and that was long before either of these cookbooks! I think moms have been doing that since Cain and Abel wouldn't eat their dandelion greens. Such a funny case. Great post, Kathryn.

    1. Actually, my gut feeling is that Eve didn't have the same problem modern mothers do in getting kids to eat, because she had a monopoly. Her children didn't have a choice between healthy, wholesome, and boring foods and high sugar high fat fast food. Cain and Abel couldn't complain their mother didn't cook like their best friend's mother, because their best friend's mother happened to be Eve as well.

    2. Thanks for your comments. I could have used either of these cookbooks when my own kids were small, and these days I should use the recipes myself. Oh well.

  2. I always enjoy and learn from your entertaining and informative posts, Kathyrn -- THANKS! :-)