Do you have that in writing

I would guess that the first gleeful, greedy pleasure the foodie experiences when let loose online is recipe gluttony. Or perhaps that should be a vice (or two) - but pleasure and vice are so often entwined. In any event, even voracious collect ors who would have to guiltilyadmit that their bookshelves already contain more than enough recipes for a lifetime would be stunned by the selection. Armed with the barest of clues - a search engine and the word "recipe" being the simple st example - and you are just a few keystrokes from untold riches.

Whether pleasure, vice or passion, once you get many of your kicks in the kitchen, you probably spend time and effort on your recipes. You scribble notes in your books, record adjustments and amendments, copy your favourites and share them with friends. And quite possibly, without any warning, the long arm of the law - the hitherto unknown recipe police - may come knocking at your door.

Vice squad?

Even in the querulous USA, where the legal system often seems to be an alternative form of lottery, recipes have been considered a type of procedural description that fall outside of the jurisdiction of copyright. Collections of recipes and the te xtual descriptions and directions can be a different kettle of fish, but the ingredients and basic method are public property.

Of course, it is polite to give a source. The very correct will give credit and secure written permission. Now, one very correct publisher is being sued.

The tiny Penfield Press will presumably close its doors if they lose a suit over their book License to Cook Texas Style. The whole story is at the Penfield web site and well worth reading. It is hard to understand how a publisher with pe rmission to use material can be sued, but despite permissions and precedents a judge has not dismissed this case.

Penfield are asking for donations for their legal battle, and writing a book about the case as it progresses, but it is hard to see either of these ploys covering the $100,000 damages being sought, let alone the running legal expenses. W hat is frightening is that if they do lose, it could mean open season on anyone who prints recipes, from social groups all the way up to book publishers. But surely that will never affect the average citizen outside the USA?

Fish and chips©

Well, don't be toosure. Bizarre legal action affecting what happens in your kitchen or on your plate seems to be a global craze. Not only is there an effort afoot to patent 'fried potatoes with added salt' in the UK, but this particular cl aim is being undertaken for the public good.

The British charity ActionAid hopes to focus public attention on the dangers set in motion by recent changes to international patent regulations. The chilling economical implications of gene-modified crops might scare you morethan the d ebatable scientific consequences. Huge corporations dominate the GM crop and seed market and farmers in poorer countries are finding their traditional crops suddenly subject to licence fees and tariffs. The article in the table to the right makes a persua sive argument for why ActionAid wants to patent your potatoes.

It's hard to gauge the chances of ActionAid winning their claim, and while the charity clearly labels their campaign as a point of principle, success would mean a tremendous amount of potential income. Could a group like this resist the temptat ion to make McDonald's pay towards their cause?

There is no mention of how such a patent would affect the private consumer. And if McD's and others started serving salt-free fries, would the dinerbe busted for salting them? Stupid questions like this need to be asked.

Legal? Pleasure?

The problem with these issues is that they seem too far-fetched, even idiotic, to be taken seriously. So much simpler to assume the world can't get quite that silly. For those who can't put such worries out of their mind, there is the comfort that the food industry toils incessantly to relieve sudden anxieties attached to recipes or fried potatoes.

Heinz and Ore-Ida will bring out a new line of potato products in the USA in May. The "Funky Fries" line will sport cool spud-like products in a variety of shapes, flavours and ... colours. You, or more likely your offsp ring, will be able to choose from a spectrum ranging from the mildly original sour cream and chive flavoured French fry, to the "Kool Blue", which only looks different. The pride of the line is the "Cocoa Crisper", not only brown, but chocolate flavoured.

No worries about violating the ActionAid patent there. The Ore-Ida people claim that product testing for their new range achieved record popularity. So you know this will be coming to a grocery near you, sooner or later. And your children will badger you for them.

This is one far-fetched idea I find easy to believe. Maybe it is time to start taking the politics of food seriously.

Jonathan Tisdall is a Japanese-Irish-American freelance journalist who emigrated to London before settling in Norway. This has resulted in a wide range of influences, and he still occasionally for gets where he is.

Copyright © 2002, Jonathan Tisdall