The next time you dine at a restaurant, you might want to check to see if you're swallowing any fine-print legalese along with your food. There is apparently a serious movement among chefs to start serving intellectual property claims along with their culinary creations. You may eat the meal, in other words, but the chef still owns it.
Yesterday one of my readers pointed out a fascinating article in the current issue of Food & Wine Magazine. The piece justifiably centers on how copyright law could be applied to recipes in the future. Of course, the expression of a recipe as published in a cookbook or whatever has always been copyrightable, but what entreprenurial chefs and legal-minded entrepreneurs have in mind now is to copyright the recipe as expressed in food. The article points out the case of an Australian chef whose cuisine was winning awards Down Under until it was discovered he was copying the dishes right down to the details of presentation from American restaurants. So there's some interesting arguments on both sides, although I get a little queasy whenever people talk copyrighting what seems like an idea.
Still, what really got my attention in the article is the experience that Pete Wells, the author of the Food & Wine piece, had in an avant-garde restaurant in Chicago. He was served a small, edible sheet of cotton-candy paper, on which was printed this notice from the restaurant's chef:
Confidential Property of and © H. Cantu. Patent Pending. No further use or disclosure is permitted without prior approval of H. Cantu..
The idea that you could restrict someone from making further use of food after they eat it is quite remarkable in itself. The mind reels, however, at the possibilities opened up by the bite-to-agree contract formation being attempted by Chef Cantu and his lawyers. And why should the restaurant biz stop at this point when they could serve up whole platefuls of EULA-like language for diners to swallow? Forget about returning a badly cooked meal to the kitchen once you have that first taste. And should you come down with food poisoning, reporting it to the health authorities would obviously be a violation of the non-disclosure clause. Big Macs could be inscribed with a prohibition against ever eating at Burger King again, PizzaHut could charge your credit card for another supreme combo each week whether you come in or not, etc.
Of course, considering how other industries are cashing in on the intellectual property land grab, you can't really blame those in the food business for wanting to get in on the act. We all see the media conglomerates pushing the boundaries of copyright law, the patent trolls raking in millions for phony inventions, and the lawyers pretending that their sneakwrap fine print constitute a sacred pact. So why be surprised when yet another group cooks up ways to take the food out of our mouths?
Read and post comments about this story here.