Go Ahead, Make Your Own Cronut
I’ve never braved the line at Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York to buy a Cronut. My interest in doughnuts is low; my interest in lengthy lines, nonexistent. I had happily resigned myself to never tasting the much-lauded foodstuff when I came across something advertised as a “Croissanut” at an airport bakery. I tried it. It tasted like a very oily croissant. I tried the version at my local farmers market last summer. Much better, but still, basically, an oily croissant. However, if I should, for some reason, crave layers of buttery, flaky pastry strongly infused with the flavor of vegetable oil, I can now get one at all sorts of places, without standing in line for hours.
This, the Washington Post informs me, is “food plagiarism.” Ansel can -- and has --trademarked the Cronut name. But he can’t trademark “deep-frying a croissant.” This has always been the case, of course, but with food blogs and television shows rapidly propagating the news of any new invention from Korean tacos to ice cream subtly flavored with cornflakes, any food innovation has a remarkably short shelf life. The imitators will be vending near-identical versions faster than you can say Cro-Cro-Croissanut.
Is this a problem? After an ominous-sounding headline, the Post article sort of dithers. That’s because it’s not a problem -- and I say that as someone who’s pretty hawkish on intellectual property, given the way I make my living.
Why do I think that copying my words is a problem, while copying someone else’s recipes is not? Naked self-interest, of course!
OK, well, maybe -- as Upton Sinclair once noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” On the other hand, I also publish recipes. Back in the days of my old blog, I knew of at least a couple of instances in which people reblogged those recipes, sometimes with attribution, sometimes not. They rewrote the descriptions, of course, but the list of ingredients and the stuff you did to them were the same. And my answer was always “God bless,” a reaction I emphatically did not have to anyone who stole my other content by scraping it and republishing it.
What’s the difference? Well, for one thing, recipes are kinda … limited. Yes, exciting new things are being done with food all the time, but most of the ordinary foods we eat every day are basically small variations on a theme. It would be hard to copyright a list of ingredients when a tiny change, such as adding a pinch of this or that, would effectively define it as a new recipe.
Contrast that with the ways of combining words. A while back, my friend Terry Teachout pointed out something remarkable to me: As few as seven words of your own work searched uniquely in Google will often turn up one hit -- your piece. You can try it yourself by taking a short sentence from this column, such as “Well, for one thing, recipes are kinda … limited,” leaving the quotes on, and plugging it into Google.
More important, however, is the ease of reproducing a Cronut compared to the ease of reproducing this column. Copying and pasting it is a trivial labor when compared to the effort expended writing it. And copies are nearly indistinguishable from each other. That effectively makes it very hard for the creator to appropriate any of the fruits of their labor unless they are offered some kind of protection. (Music file-sharing aficionados will please to not make me break a rib laughing by suggesting that I could make it back by charging for live performances of my work.)
Food production, on the other hand, has a substantial labor and skill component. I’m told that the Cronuts at Dominique Ansel Bakery are, in fact, a different creature entirely from the oil-sodden products I’ve gotten elsewhere; deep-frying croissant dough well is actually quite difficult. (Sadly, I’ll never know, because: line.)
But even if that were not the case, the fact would remain that competitors have to expend a great deal of time and money producing a facsimile of your product. And because modern mass production imposes certain constraints (basically, high-quality fresh food is very hard to do at scale, because it’s generally not economical to have a vast assembly line churning out products that are best consumed in the next 12 hours), creators can be reasonably sure that they’ll be able to appropriate a lot of the benefits of their technique. Much of the profit comes from mastering the skill, getting a location and putting in the hours, not from figuring out how to fry a cronut for the first time. The next guy who figures it out won’t be undercutting your sales with perfect copies; he’ll be selling a slightly different product that some of your customers might prefer but others won’t.
My business does, in fact, have a parallel: I can copyright a certain pattern of words in a row, but I can’t copyright the underlying facts. I may be the first person to report that such-and-such person said something on a given day. But I can’t keep folks from repeating it ad nauseam. Nor should I be able to. The desire to ensure that creators are paid for their labors has to be counterbalanced against the benefits to society from free-flowing information.
How we strike that balance depends on the available technology. No one worried about copyright when books had to be laboriously hand-copied onto the skin of dead animals. Everyone worries about it now that perfect replicas can be made with the click of a button. And if technology straight out of "Star Trek" eventually lets everyone in the known universe make perfect copies of Ansel’s Cronut at home, then we might have to come up with some sort of intellectual-property regime to protect our nation’s vital Korean-taco-and-cornflake-ice-cream recipe. Until then, you should not feel guilty about enjoying that Faux-nut. It’s just that a Cronut by any other name may not still taste just as sweet.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at email@example.com