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The Jessica Seinfeld Cookbook Controversy :
The Purple Crayon Blog November 2007

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Cookbooks, Copyright, and Publisher Ethics

Thank you for writing Complete Idiot's Guide to Children's Publishing. It is detailed, clear and concise. I appreciate that you are straight-forward and seem to truly want to help other authors get started in the right direction.

However, I was wondering what you thought about the HarperCollins controversy regarding Jessica Seinfeld's cookbook. (See link below.) There are many times in your book where you point out how publishing houses would never steal or even think of taking an author's idea and yet this is an astonishingly scary example of them doing just that ! Especially interesting is the fact that Lupine submitted hers not once, but twice including recipes to HarperCollins and was rejected both times (therefore, we know that someone at Collins had read peculiar recipes such as grilled cheese with butternut squash, which subsequently turned up in Seinfeld's book.)

Even if you could insist that this is a single instance, how can we be sure? Thanks for your thoughts.

Cookbook news story

I can't speak from personal experience with the adult division of HarperCollins, and I've read only one in-depth article on this controversy. But I'll offer my opinion for what it's worth.

There seem to be two separate issues. One is the claim that HC and Jessica Seinfeld stole the idea for the book from Lupine. This is at least debatable, as far as I can tell. As I note in my book, extremely similar ideas for books can (and DO) appear in the minds of different individuals. The fact that Lupine submitted her manuscript to HC does not prove that HC took the idea from her and gave it to Seinfeld--I'd want to see some evidence beyond the circumstantial. In this case, as the parent of a six-year-old and therefore fairly in touch with the books and other products with which parents are bombarded, I don't think it's at all unlikely for two authors to independently come up with the idea for a cookbook with cunningly disguised healthy recipes for children.

The second issue is that some of the recipes appear to be very similar. This doesn't seem to me to prove anything. From what I've read, there are recipes in both books that are not only similar to each other but to recipes that can be found floating around on the Web. So perhaps the scandal is that BOTH of these authors didn't come up with hundreds of completely original recipes! Actually, I don't think that should be considered a scandal. Many cookbooks do draw on existing recipes, and in this case both books may have drawn on the same ones, a circumstance which the fans of Ms. Lupine's book, who kicked off the scandal by comparing recipes, did not seem to be aware of. Keep in mind that recipes are a very difficult kind of material if you want to determine "ownership" of copyrightable content. As I understand it, the Copyright Office doesn't consider the ingredients of a recipe to BE copyrightable--only the other writing the author does.

So, I don't think that there was any stealing here, either of the idea or of specific recipes. And if what I say above does not convince you, then here is one further point, and a suggestion. In the article you cite, the timeline of events itself has some compelling evidence, at least from my insider's perspective. Ms. Lupine originally submitted a partial manuscript to HC in February of last year. In June, Ms. Seinfeld's book was acquired by HC in an AUCTION. The idea that HC would somehow feed the idea and some recipes to Seinfeld, who was then able to develop it into a complete manuscript in only four months, is unlikely (I found a blog that further develops this thought, so I won't). But here's the kicker: That HC would do something so underhanded AND allow the book to go to an auction, in which they had to bid against other houses to acquire this book that they had handed to Seinfeld, is absurd. If they are going to be so unethical as to hand her the project, wouldn't they insist on locking it up from the beginning? That doesn't make sense.

And here's the suggestion: Please take a look at some of the more recent articles about the issue--the one that you linked is, I think, one of the first, and the reporting since then has developed the story a bit.

Hope that helps, and thanks for writing. You helped me clarify my own thinking on this.

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Copyright 2007 by Harold Underdown. All rights reserved.

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