From the food editor: Thoughts on the New York Times charging for its cooking content, and who owns online recipes

Published July 10, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times announced it would start charging for access to its digital cooking content. Over the past few years, the Times has steadily built up its presence in the world of digital food content, particularly when it comes to recipes. Their website Cooking has a database of almost 20,000 recipes, plus a Pinterest-like way to organize and store them. They have a daily newsletter dedicated to Cooking content, and a bevy of instructional food videos.

You used to be able to use any of that as much as you wanted for free, even though other parts of the Times site required a paid subscription. Now, to get access, readers must pay $5 each month — a small price, but a price nonetheless. In a time when most of the internet is still free, still not subject to the kind of subscription mind-set that has long ruled cable television, magazines and, yes, print newspapers, it's an interesting (and smart) move.

For one thing, it firmly establishes the Times as a source for original cooking content. This is something consumers of online cooking blogs or websites take for granted. I include myself in that group, frequently turning to all kinds of sources for recipe and cooking inspiration.

It's no secret that a large portion of this corner of the internet relies on aggregation, or the basic reprinting of recipes with attribution to the original source. Not all of it, of course, but more than used to be present in nondigital forms. How often do you read a cookbook that contains recipes all reprinted from other cookbooks?

Which brings up the other interesting thing about all of this, the idea of if and how we value original recipes in a digital era.

As an organization with a test kitchen and the staff required to test recipes multiple times, the New York Times creates recipes from whole cloth then cooks them to ensure they are reproducible and will turn out (mostly) the same way no matter who makes them. That is clearly something the Times values enough to charge for it. Do regular consumers of online cooking content see things the same way? It may depend on what such a person is looking for. Those who buy cookbooks or subscribe to Bon Appétit magazine probably won't think twice about shelling out $5 every four weeks to have access to the Times' recipes. But I can see others balking at the idea.

For those digital platforms that are not creating entirely original cooking content, there is a sometimes tricky delineation to be made between what is original and what isn't. It often seems as if there is only a finite number of recipes out there, only a certain number of ways a set of ingredients can be put together. Think about this the next time you Google a basic recipe like "chicken Parmesan." How many ways are there to do that, really? Who came up with it first? Who deserves the attribution?

Another thing to consider: Recipes in their most basic form can't be copyrighted. From the website of the U.S. Copyright Office: "Copyright law does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients. ... Copyright protection may, however, extend to substantial literary expression — a description, explanation, or illustration, for example — that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook."