In December of 2014, Elizabeth LaBau, the blogger behind SugarHero, posted a self-produced recipe for snow globe cupcakes with gelatin bubbles. As the name suggests, they're cupcakes that resemble snow globes, made with transparent globs of gelatin. The recipe, she claims, is original, the result of an idea that'd been percolating in her mind. The post was a smash, congesting traffic on her site so much that it crashed.
LaBau is a full-time food blogger, and she relies on the stream of capital that her site provides to make a living. The post’s success translated to revenue, more than tripling her earnings that month. She made good on the post’s success with a handsomely-produced how-to video for the recipe, which she posted a full two years later in early December of 2016. The video amassed 12,000 likes and 114,000 shares on Facebook.
The Food Network posted its own Facebook video three weeks later, and the video gained considerably more impressions: 145,000 likes, over 11,000,000 shares. LaBau found the video suspiciously similar to her own, and though LaBau wrote the Food Network four days after the company's video went live, the network ignored her and declined to give her credit for the work. Last Thursday, LaBau filed a lawsuit against Food Network in California federal court, alleging that it’d outright stolen the recipe video from her, parroting her original video shot-for-shot.
Contesting the authorship or originality of a certain recipe is, more often than not, a fool’s errand, and existing copyright law reflects this: mere listings of ingredients don't constitute infringement. But copyright infringement extends to “expressions of recipes,” whether they're descriptions, explanations, or illustrations. LaBau’s lawsuit is using this particular interpretation of copyright law to allege that the Food Network aped her video. (You can read the suit in full here.)
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The suit maintains that Food Network—a titan of a media company, with access to capital, staff, and resources to mount creative projects and see them through, especially compared to a food blogger without that institutional support—reaped the benefits of LaBau's creative work wrongfully, inflicting both economic and psychological distress upon her. Food Network has yet to issue a public statement regarding LaBau’s lawsuit.
Whether or not you believe this particular suit has any merit, it brings forth an overarching, thorny, and recurring issue within food media (and the power dynamics that exist within it): Food media can be a palimpsest. Ideas get recycled continually, various authors borrow from one another, and attribution gets muddied very quickly and very easily. This suit asks certain questions about creative ownership and access to resources that'll likely nag at food media for quite some time. We’ll see how this pans out.
Please note that Scripps Networks Interactive, the Food Network's parent company, is an investor in Food52.
Read the lawsuit here. What's your take? Let us know in the comments.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.