Is idea theft an ingredient in the success of BuzzFeed's Tasty?
In just two months, BuzzFeed's Tasty turned its viral food videos into a bestselling cookbook, but some recipe creators say BuzzFeed's mouth-watering food content comes with a not-so-tasty side of plagiarism.
On Thursday, prominent food writer Kenji López-Alt, author of New York Times' bestselling book The Food Lab and managing culinary director for Serious Eats, tweeted that BuzzFeed's Tasty general manager Ashley McCollum had capitalized on content theft after the Nieman Lab reported that the Tasty cookbook was a top-selling cookbook of 2016. López-Alt's tweet has since been deleted but you can see it in the screenshot below. López-Alt did not respond to Mic's request for comment.
Nick Chipman, food blogger at the popular site Dude Foods, also said BuzzFeed lifted his ideas. He first noticed his ideas on BuzzFeed when a recipe for a bacon weave taco was eerily similar to his own original recipe, he said in an email. The oven temperature, cooking time, and methods of cutting and baking the meat taco were exactly like the recipe on his blog, Chipman said, explaining he noticed that the photos were credited to someone named Alvin Zhou, who Chipman said "would always DM me his food videos on Instagram to try to get me to share them on my account."
A later recipe for a bacon weave ice cream sandwich recipe was also similar to Chipman's version and was even photographed at the same angle, he said.
"I let it go and didn't say anything until followers of my blog kept emailing me and saying things like, 'Hey, BuzzFeed copied your recipe without crediting you!'" he said of the bacon taco incident, explaining that BuzzFeed apologized to him after he repeatedly reached out.
According to Chipman, an editor told him that the company had no idea their freelance video developer (Alvin Zhou, who is now a video producer at BuzzFeed) had copied Chipman's two bacon ideas and had borrowed heavily from Chipman's recipe for Bacon Wrapped Cheese Sticks.
A week or so later, the company edited the page to give Chipman credit, but never called him to provide an update on the situation, he said. "But at that point they were a couple weeks old and most people who were going to see them had already seen them," Chipman said.
López-Alt said in a tweet that a BuzzFeed editor also apologized to him for idea theft that McCollum later denied.
The recipe in question was López-Alt's halal cart-style chicken and rice that he posted to Serious Eats in 2011, the Independent reported. BuzzFeed posted "NYC Street Cart Style Chicken & Rice" in May 2016, and the recipe is accessible through the searchable BuzzFeed Tasty database.
"We all need to jump in together and make sure Eugenie is given the credit she deserves!" a Facebook user named Crystal Bales wrote on Eugenie's Facebook page. Eventually, BuzzFeed added a link acknowledging the recipe was from Eugenie Kitchen. On her blog, Eugenie wrote she "appreciated" the gesture in a post titled "Dear BuzzFeed."
"The BuzzFeed profit model is 'go viral at any cost' and that is always to the detriment of true artists." — Akilah Hughes, comedian and YouTube personality
To respond to plagiarism claims and a petition for advertisers to boycott BuzzFeed based on instances of alleged plagiarism, CEO Jonah Peretti published a Medium post on July 12, 2016. He wrote chefs "borrow and remix each other's recipes," and maintained that the company "strive[s] to credit generously when we are actually influenced by others."
"I think that's a total bullshit explanation," Chipman said. "They originally admitted to [López-Alt] that they ripped off his idea and then when someone higher up at BuzzFeed got involved it was just suddenly a 'coincidence.'"
A BuzzFeed spokesperson responded to the allegations with the following statement:
Tasty's success is built on the development of tens of thousands of original recipes that are viewed billions of times all over the world. It's ludicrous to suggest otherwise....We take our recipe development seriously, and are vigilant about crediting others when we are inspired by them. Since the recipes in question were published, we put a sourcing and crediting system in place and it's a standard part of our process today.
"The BuzzFeed profit model is 'go viral at any cost' and that is always to the detriment of true artists," Akilah Hughes, a comedian, YouTube personality, writer and author of the petition for advertisers to boycott BuzzFeed, said in an email. Hughes hasn't noticed BuzzFeed's methods of attribution improving. "I think they're more afraid and they tend to rip off smaller creators now," she said.
When it comes to recipes, creators like López-Alt and Chipman are unable to bring instances of idea theft to court because recipes usually aren't considered intellectual property. A person can't own a recipe in the same way that Beyonce owns the rights to Lemonade. As the site IP Watchdog points out, patents are only given for foods that are novel and "non-obvious," like a sealed crustless sandwich.
And there's not much content creators can do to protect their work. Hughes explained she's been in contact with several Fortune 500 companies that have agreed to cease working with BuzzFeed Video, and she thinks the site will be compelled "to make a very public statement/apology for their shitty business practices" if a few more major corporations also cease giving BuzzFeed their business.
"It sucks to put in a ton of work coming up with ideas and recipes and making them only to see BuzzFeed ripping them off without even crediting where the original idea came from," Chipman said, explaining that many bloggers would "jump at the chance to get mentioned" on BuzzFeed. All the site needs to do is ask permission from the original creator and credit them, he said, noting this method of attribution is "what other writers and websites do" and "morally, it's just the right thing to do to credit someone if you're using their recipes."
Inspiration and attribution in the online recipe world is a messy business.
While the recipes allegedly lifted and inspired by López-Alt, Chipman and Eugenie Kitchen aren't in the Tasty cookbook that sold thousands of copies, each viral BuzzFeed recipe was an ingredient in their resoundingly successful online content empire. And Tasty is raking in a lot of dough — social videos like the ones on Tasty provide roughly half of BuzzFeed's alleged $250 million in revenue.