Food

Plagiarism is rampant in Indian food writing – but finally, bloggers have a way to fight it

Social media has worked where the law proved unpredictable.

“We have been cheated,” declared the headline of the blog post making the rounds of social media on April 25. The post, written by Rajkumar Saxena, former head of Mumbai’s Institute of Hotel Management, alleged that passages from his 1997 book on Awadhi cuisine, Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh, had been plagiarised by Sunil Soni, a veteran chef, in his new book titled Jashn-e-Oudh: Romance of the Cuisine.

The blog’s text, like the headline, dripped with hurt and contempt: “Here is a case of… a learned, literate person who has no qualms about unhesitatingly lifting word-by-word the explanations, recipes etc. from [a] book authored by us and claiming it to be his original work…” Images from the two books were embedded to support the allegation. “We need to name and shame such so-called experts through social media. We seek your support…”

The support came almost immediately.

Celebrity chef Ranveer Brar, who had written the foreword for Soni’s book, announced on Facebook that he wanted the author to remove it. Outrage also erupted on the wall of Food Bloggers’ Hall of Shame, a closed Facebook group of 421 members dedicated to fighting plagiarism in food writing and photography in India. “How can people even think that they can get away with such a shameless act of plagiarising?” wrote Anushruti RK.

It was an organic reaction. By blogging about his grievance, Saxena had tapped into the one space that Indian food writers are increasingly using today to redress the alleged plagiarism in food writing – social media.

“As a community, we are now discovering an average of one or two plagiarist websites/aggregators every week,” said Rhea Mitra-Dalal, the administrator of the Food Bloggers’ Hall of Shame, which shares dos and don’ts with members to protect their work. “We’ve had several run-ins with celebrity chefs, big food brands, restaurants, and food businesses, especially on their social media pages, where we have found plagiarised images. Public outcry on those pages has usually worked and we have got the plagiarised content down, but these are episodic and the basic mind-set hasn’t changed: it is fine to plagiarise, just apologise and take it down when caught.”

Cease and desist

Saxena’s blog post was a last resort. He says he had first noticed the alleged plagiarism – “42 recipes, 24 explanatory notes and 12 chapter notes,” according to him – in Jashn-e-Oudh in January, and had informed his publisher HarperCollins India. HarperCollins responded by sending a cease-and-desist notice to Soni, copying his publisher Shubhi Publications, and set three demands: remove the offending material from Jashn-e-Oudh, acknowledge the copyright of the authors of Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh, and pay Rs 5 lakh.

Soni and Sanjay Arya of Shubhi Publications claim they never received this notice.

The cover of the 2015 edition of 'Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh'. Credit: rajkumarsaxena.blogspot.in
The cover of the 2015 edition of 'Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh'. Credit: rajkumarsaxena.blogspot.in

On April 10, Saxena says he got an email from HarperCollins telling him it will not be pursuing the matter further because “currently HCI has put on hold all litigations due to some business-related issues”. “The copyright is definitely in your favour,” declared the email. “You are free to litigate this matter and file a suit for injunction. As far as shaming the authors/publisher on social media is concerned, as a publisher, we cannot opine on that. It is your personal decision...”

So, a fortnight later, Saxena did just that: he took his complaint to the internet.

Around the same time, he and his co-author Sangeeta Bhatnagar sent a legal notice, through their lawyer, to Soni to cease and desist from further publication and distribution of Jashn-e-Oudh, and demanded Rs 15 lakh in compensation.

This time, they got a seven-page response from Soni’s lawyer.

While denying the accusation of plagiarism, the response from Soni’s lawyer said, “Your clients are liable to show their copyright in the alleged infringed work of our client as no copyright can be claimed in the traditional recipes and their preparation as same will be similar across the globe to get the same taste.” It added that no copyright can be claimed on the subject of Awadhi recipes since it is “a common topic and known and available to the general public at large. All the recipes mentioned in the alleged publication are known in the market”.

Soni also denied the allegation when contacted for comment by Scroll.in.

Sunil Soni at the launch of his book 'Jashn-e-Oudh: Romance of the Cuisine'.

Looking West

The reply from Soni’s lawyer makes some sound legal points, all of which, according to food bloggers, are reasons why food plagiarism is so hard to prove: a recipe that is a list of ingredients cannot be copyrighted. Nor can a traditional cooking method be seen as the property of any author. Reproducing these, therefore, is not plagiarism.

However, substantial literary and artistic expressions are copyrightable, according to the US Copyright Office, and reproducing these is unlawful. Another suspect action is when a chef’s work is tweaked by changing just one or two ingredients. In 2012, the Food Network in the US cancelled chef Anne Thornton’s TV show Dessert First, because some of her recipes were only mildly different from those created by superchefs like Martha Stewart.

Bloggers like Mitra Dalal lean on these definitions to call their content original. “Most of us have unique styles of writing, and we often include anecdotes and other content to our posts,” she said. “So copy-pastes can often be quite correctly identified.”

Another useful metric, according to Mitra Dalal, are rules set in more mature markets where bloggers have already fought, and won, battles.

“There are international guidelines for this,” she explained. “Loosely put, if every third word is different, the text cannot be deemed plagiarised. Also, you cannot say that an ingredient list is plagiarised.”

Small wins

Mitra Dalal and other food bloggers often fight their battles outside the court of law, which is good and bad. On the plus side, it’s faster and easier for them to control the context – but on the minus side, the wins are relatively small.

In July last year, for instance, 20 food bloggers alleged that the recipe aggregating app The Frying Pan had plagiarised their work. They lawyered up, and got ready for a legal battle.

“The Frying Pan had published our recipes and photographs without proper attribution, and without our consent,” said Deeba Rajpal, one of the 20 complainants. “We were advised that if we sought compensation, it would be a long haul. So, we only asked The Frying Pan to take our content down and never to use our work again without permission.”

The case didn’t go to court. The lawyers met and reached an agreement, according to Rajpal. “The app took our content down. The case never had a proper conclusion – it fizzled out.”

Except on social media, where the Food Bloggers’ Hall of Shame kept the pressure up, slamming The Frying Pan – hard.

Can Google help?

Proving plagiarism in food writing is difficult at any rate, but there are factors that complicate the matter in India, according to Sunil Abraham of The Centre for Internet and Society.

The copyright law here, he says, has inbuilt exceptions and limitations that protect the rights of stakeholders, including entrepreneurs, content creators, consumers, the public who may not pay for the content, and the government.

Many times, copyright holders in India have conceded or withdrawn legal cases because of limitations to the copyright law or the doctrine of fair use, which states that “brief excerpts of copyright material may, under certain circumstances, be quoted verbatim”. Just in February, a handful of publishers took back a lawsuit against a photocopier shop in Delhi University that had been selling study packs with materials reproduced from the publishers’ books.

Abraham said that often there is an economic incentive for plagiarising – take that away, and you fix half the problem.

For bloggers, a major source of income is Google AdSense, a popular program that allows website publishers to display ads on their pages and “earn money when visitors view or click the ads”. The problem is: if the advertiser cares only about page views and not the origin of the content, there is no incentive against plagiarism.

Credit: Vitamin-966515/Pixabay [CC0 Public Domain]
Credit: Vitamin-966515/Pixabay [CC0 Public Domain]

For checking online copyright infringement, Abraham says, the onus should be on multinationals like Google, which host a large number of blogs and web versions of media articles. “Google is constantly indexing the internet,” he said in a phone interview from Bengaluru, so Google knows when a write-up or a photo has been published before.

To be fair, according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Google does entertain requests to remove online posts where a complainant can show copyright infringement. It’s a recourse that Mitra Dalal and some members of her Facebook group have found useful. But Abraham says this is less effective than if Google created hurdles to publishing content it deems plagiarised.

Need for reforms

Where does all this leave Saxena? It’s hard to tell.

Social media has generated awareness about his case, and Saxena has filed a complaint with the Delhi Police under Section 63 of the Indian Copyright Act. He plans to follow it up with a legal case. One thing that has certainly resulted from the episode is the food writing community’s intensified demand for clarity in laws to protect intellectual property.

As Saee Koranne-Khandekar, who blogs at myjhola.in, wrote on Food Bloggers’ Hall of Shame: “What’s amazing is that the original work [by Saxena and Bhatnagar] has gone through three successful editions, is published by a major player, and is written by two prominent names in the industry. One would think theft of content would occur in the case of less lesser known works, but this is pure guts! I hope at least this incident marks the immediate need for reform in our laws.”

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