Can you copyright a cupcake?

Updated on 04 August 2011 | 0 Comments

New York's Magnolia Bakery, purveyors of Carrie Bradshaw endorsed cupcakes, are suing a Greek bakers for stealing a cupcake recipe. But how on earth do you copyright a cupcake?

The hordes of customers queuing along the street at New York's Magnolia Bakery – home to the Carrie Bradshaw endorsed cupcake – provide an indication, if it were needed, that when it comes to cupcakes, Magnolia is very popular indeed.

It’s no surprise then that the owners of this baking phenomenon – last year they sold a staggering £12 million worth of the tasty treats - have grand ideas.

They’ve just announced what can only be described as plans for world domination of this particular segment of the baking world. I say good luck to them – their cupcakes are gorgeous.

But by suing a small bakery in Greece for “stealing” their cupcake recipe, they risk looking just a little bit ridiculous. Don't they? I mean, can a cupcake really be copyrighted?

Affordable indulgence

Despite the constant threat posed by newer baking trends, our love affair with the traditional cupcake shows no signs of ending any time soon.

The people at Magnolia who sell 12,000 cakes a day know this. They say the cupcake is an affordable indulgence in these credit crunch times so for them it’s the right time to bring the cupcake to a global audience.

Magnolia moves

So serious is the American bakery’s desire to go truly global with the most famous small sponges in the world, that it’s just announced it’s opening branches of its original Bleecker Street store all over the place - from Tokyo to Rio and from Kuwait to Mexico.

While 80 of these International Magnolias are set to spring up in the next couple of years, there’s one place you might find it a bit harder to get your hands on one of these exquisite creations than anywhere else – and that place is Greece.

Beware Greeks baking cupcakes

The decorative and dainty world of cupcakes isn’t the first place you’d expect to stumble upon lurid accusations of industrial espionage, but that’s exactly what Magnolia bosses think they’ve been the victims of.

They say one of their original owners handed over the secret Magnolia recipes to a Greek based bakery (the very unGreek sounding Hamptons Cupcakes) and they believe that the Hamptons bakery is now serially ripping them off by producing cupcakes to their valuable recipe.

Storm in a cake cup

The original Magnolia owner says she was tricked into handing the recipes over and Magnolia bosses have done all they can to get the place shut down. You can sort of appreciate why Magnolia – with so much investment on the cards – might want to so aggressively defend its territory. But how do you start to enforce a claim to cupcake copyright?

What’s in a cupcake?

Now, I may not know all there is to know about what contributes to the consistency of a good cupcake or be able to quantify the precise proportions of butter and sugar that go into perfecting the cupcake cream, but how unique can a cupcake recipe be? And isn't the attraction of cupcakes all about the decoration?

The legal manoeuvres by Magnolia made even less sense to me when I read that the owner of Magnolia agrees that as the company starts to open up around the globe, the cupcake recipes will have to be tinkered with to ensure they please the palates of the local populace.

“Butter and sugar are human desires,” he says, “and every culture has their way to deliver them, so we can morph”. Hmm, so why get so excited about one little Greek store?

Banoffi Pieman

Magnolia could learn a thing or two from British chef Ian Dowding – inventor of the Banoffi Pie, that infamous dessert that’s spawned a gazillion imitations since Mr Dowding first created it by accident in the 1970s. 

He’s seen his pie recreated all over the world, never made a penny from it – and he doesn’t seem to care. He believes that dishes aren’t invented – they evolve.

The spirit of baking

So can a recipe be copyrighted? The whole area is a bit of a murky one anyway – no one seems to know if you can actually do it. If you’re idea is distinctive enough it may be possible but – why bother?

Richard Corrigan once said that everyone in London was after his bread recipe – but it didn’t bother him – in fact he said it was normal.

Magnolia’s claim to a copyrighted cupcake just suggests to me a fundamental conflict with the true spirit of baking – summed up best by the late Egon Ronay. On the subject of recipe stealing, he had this to say: "It might be a bloody cheek. But so what? It goes on all the time. That's how good cooking spreads – it's what food is all about."

Well said sir!

Do you agree? Use the comments box below if you think Magnolia has gone a bit far - or if you think it's right to defend its recipe. 

Also worth your attention:

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