As Congress prepares for another battle over copyright law, D.C. policy wonks seeking guidance need look no further than the way the local restaurant scene has developed. Though there are clear differences, the district’s eating places offer some valuable insights into the intersection of intellectual property and creativity.

Washington has seen vast improvements in its food scene over the past few decades. From humble foods like hamburgers, Ethiopian wots or Vietnamese banh mi to the finest high-end New American, French and Indian cooking, D.C. has the bases covered. We even have bona fide celebrity chefs with national reputations, like Michel Richard and José Andrés.

Of course, it isn’t just the local chefs offering more and better culinary options to consumers. National chains like Chipotle, Panera and the Lorton, Va.-based Five Guys sell top-notch fast-casual food at thousands of locations for very reasonable prices.

This is a huge change for the better. When Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House 50 years ago, there were no Thai, Ethiopian or Vietnamese restaurants anywhere in the United States and pizza was sold in only a few big cities. Much of the food people cooked at home was so bad that it’s now a topic for gross-out humor.

Bear in mind that this massive change and incredible outflowing of culinary creativity has burst forth from an industry in which copyrights play almost no role.  While the names of dishes can be trademarked, anybody can cook and sell any recipe. Well-known chefs almost all publish cookbooks full of “secrets” and many restaurants will hand out copies of their recipes at no charge.

Local celebrity chef Michel Richard’s signature desert refines the flavors of the Kit Kat candy bar (which he, of course, didn’t invent) and versions of it have shown up on menus from Birmingham, Ala. to San Francisco. The trend isn’t confined to high-end dining. Burger King, for example, serves a near carbon-copy of McDonald’s Big Mac sandwich.

Certain types of intellectual property protection do exist for food: trademark law allows restaurants to safeguard their brands; there are copyrights in the publishing of recipes; and patents are available when somebody develops a truly novel cooking process. But by and large, the lack of strong legal protections can’t be said to have hindered the flourishing of creative output in the world of restaurants.

A look at the progress of American cooking and eating may not provide specific guidance as to how we should reform copyright law. But it does show that there’s plenty of room for creativity, innovation and invention even in a business where copyright isn’t a major factor.

Featured Publications