Thursday, May 6, 2010

Food for Thought: Cook’s Copyright Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ended the food feud between two cookbook authors. Missy Lapine sought damages for copyright and trademark infringement from Jessica Seinfeld, comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s wife. Lapine alleged Seinfeld stole her solution for getting children to eat their fruits and vegetables and her book’s trademark, a winking chef.

Lapine included the idea to puree fruits and vegetables and hide them from children in their everyday foods in her book, The Sneaky Chef. A winking chef is featured on the cover. The guide was published in April of 2007.

Seinfeld’s book, Deceptively Delicious, was published in October of 2007. Her guide shared the same basic concept of Lapine’s by providing recipes that concealed fruits and vegetables in kid’s dishes. Her book cover also displayed a winking chef. Oprah invited Seinfeld on the show to explain the cuisine philosophies encompassed in her book.

Lapine filed a lawsuit against Seinfeld in January of 2008. The District Court of New York ruled in favor of the defendant, Seinfeld. The court asserted that Lapine’s concept was not exactly novel and maintained that an idea is not protected by copyright. As for the trademark, the court held that the cover drawing of the winking chef on each book appeared amply different and distinctive and readers would not confuse the two. The Court went on to examine the content, design and arrangement of the books. They judged that Lapine’s book focused more on the texts and explanations while Seinfeld’s contained more visual and graphic elements to aid the text. The plaintiff appealed the decision and the case went to the Second Circuit, where the ruling of the lower court was affirmed and the complaints were thrown out.

I concur with both the decision and dicta of the two courts. Copyright does not protect ideas and Lapine’s concept is not an exception to this rule. Lapine cannot simply claim ownership over the puree idea. In addition, after evaluating the covers myself, I also found them to be very unlike one another. It would be difficult for readers to confuse them. Thus, while Lapine may have been able to prove that Seinfeld got a hold of her work, she did not show that the two books were considerably alike. Without the satisfaction of these two requirements, one cannot win a copyright infringement case..

The free flowing of ideas has always been an integral component of American society. Allowing for the copyright of ideas would significantly obstruct the free marketplace of ideas. While Lapine may be after damages, I believe another intention (if not her main intention) was to generate publicity and consequently greater sales for her own book. She is also currently involved in a lawsuit against Jerry Seinfeld for defamation. On the Late Show with David Letterman Seinfeld referred to Lapine as, “a nut job,” “a wacko” and “hysterical.” The outcome of this case is pending.

The original decision can be found at

The appeal case can be found at

A preview of The Sneaky Chef can be found online at


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