Secret recipes and copyright

Secret recipes. Everyone loves a secret. But are secret recipes about marketing or copyright?

By Jeremy Ryland


There are a lot of recipes that people like to keep to themselves – their special trade secrets. Perhaps the most famous are KFC with its “eleven secret herbs and spices” and Coca-Cola.

Secret recipes


It is said that only two people know the recipe for Coca-Cola and that they only know half each. Whether true or not, the formula for Coca-Cola is certainly one of the most closely guarded trade secrets in modern business.


So why is it important to keep some food recipes secret? What are the food companies hiding? Or is it just clever marketing? Or is it because recipes are hard to copyright?


Coca-Cola is a drink made from cola nuts which originate in Africa. Cola nuts have been used for centuries as a form of medicine and stimulant as they contain caffeine and the leaves of the tree contain cocaine.


The Coca-Cola drink we know today was invented by Dr John Pemberton in 1886 in Georgia, USA, as a remedy for headaches and hangovers and as a general tonic. The original recipe was a caramel coloured syrup based on coca leaves with cola beans for flavour hence 'coca & cola'. Since the early 1900s, the leaves have had the cocaine removed from them, so today’s drink does not contain any cocaine.


The Coca-Cola formula is a secret but is basically a mix of water, sugar and flavourings including cola nuts, coca leaves, lime juice, vanilla, cinnamon, coriander, orange oil and nutmeg, with caramel for colouring.


Whilst the formula is a secret, the reason is more to do about marketing than restricting copies. Secrecy suggests that we are getting something really special and it helps to promote the brand. In reality, several people know the full formula for Coca-Cola and the formulation has changed over time but the myth of secrecy remains!


Another famous secret recipe is the Kentucky Fried Chicken's eleven secret herbs and spices. This famous chicken formulation was developed by Colonel Harland Sanders in Kentucky USA in the 1930s and the Colonel’s secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices remains one of the best-kept trade secrets in business.


The original handwritten recipe is locked securely in a vault in Louisville with partial copies stored elsewhere as a backup. Only a handful of people, who have signed strict confidentiality contracts, know the recipe. The two suppliers of the seasonings each only provide parts of the recipe and it is mixed at a third location under computer control.


The taste is certainly unique, but it is the mystery of sharing something secret that is most important. If everyone knew the recipe, it would not be unique! And in marketing, “unique” is vital.


So what are the eleven secret herbs and spices? Well, it is still a secret but analysis suggests that it includes salt, ground black pepper, flour, monosodium glutamate, onion salt, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley and ginger.


Most secret recipes are simply great marketing and to some extent to protect people from making exact copies. The hype and mystique surrounding their secret recipe make for a good marketing tactic. Promoting the secrecy of that formula and the security surrounding it sends the message that we are getting something original and very special for our dollar; indeed something that we can get nowhere else.



But secret recipes also have commercial value. In practice, it is hard to copyright a recipe. Who came up with the first meat pie? Was the pavlova developed in Australia or New Zealand?


Copyright does not protect basic information and you cannot copyright a list of ingredients. You also cannot copyright a simple cooking method, a list of instructions. Moreover, you do not need permission to follow a recipe.


You can, however, copyright a detailed “literary” recipe which might, for example, include a discussion about the ingredients and processes. And of course, copyright protects photographs of the product: photographs are always the property of the person who took them.


But that does not stop people using the recipe – they may not be able to photocopy or photograph the printed recipe – but they can follow the recipe and make the product. In fact, someone can watch you make a product and write down the ingredients and methods, in their own words without infringing intellectual property. Nobody owns a recipe, only the language in which it is recorded.


There is a well-known public dispute between two award-winning restaurants in Brisbane over a dish called Kentucky Fried Duck or KFD. The dish was developed by chef Damon Amos when he worked at “Public” in 2012. He left in 2015 and opened a new restaurant, “Detour” taking the recipe with him. He has since been trying to stop “Public” from including the dish on their menu unsuccessfully, I believe, although they may have had to make a small change. Regardless, it is a great dish!


Regardless of the law, there are ethical and moral issues over using other people’s creative ideas and you should, of course, always attribute a recipe to the person who developed it. If you physically copy a recipe you should seek permission from the owner. If you have made a small modification, then you should declare that it is “adapted from” the original or perhaps “inspired by” for larger changes.


Many chefs will try to guard their recipes, especially for signature dishes that are part of their personal branding. Some say that published restaurant recipes often leave out an ingredient or a step or two, so you cannot duplicate it perfectly.


"I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation."         Madame Benoit


You can gain immortality by “naming” your recipe such as Caesar Salad, Tart Tatin, the Reuben sandwich or Fettuccine Alfredo. Or you can keep it a secret! In reality, very few recipes are really new recipes, most are adaptations of others. And it is best to share for the sake of cuisine development.


Hospitality is all about sharing and caring. Most chefs are happy to see other people making their recipes, but they dislike it when others take the credit. So give them credit. And if you ask them, most chefs will share a recipe with you – an act of hospitality and generosity as all gastronomy is.


“The duty of a good Cuisinier is to transmit to the next generation everything he has learned and experienced.” Fernand Point, 1941

Please note that the information provided in this article is advisory only and for more detailed information about copyright, please consult a lawyer or go to The Australian Copyright Council website.