Lack of regulations a recipe for rampant food filching

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Lack of regulations a recipe for rampant food filching


From left: Sulbing’s injeolmi bingsu (the original) and Dalsuda’s injeolmi bingsu (the copycat); Softree’s Honey Chips (the original) and Milkcow’s Milk Cube (the copycat); Bonggu Beer’s beer and snacks (the original) and Yonggu Beer’s beer and snacks (the copycat). By Lee Seung-lee

Located in the bustling Hongdae area near Hongik University, Korean dessert cafe Sulbing belies the stereotype that young people dislike traditional food. Couples, groups of friends and families with small children take pictures of Sulbing’s signature dessert, injeolmi bingsu, or shaved ice with toasted bean powder.

There are several Sulbing-like cafes within a few blocks of the original with similar menus and even bowl-shaped logos.

There are at least five small beer bars in Hongdae alone resembling the original, Bonggu Beer. Even their names sound alike - Yonggu and Bongju.

The honeycomb ice cream conflict between Softree and Milkcow is an even messier problem. In April, Softree sued Milkcow for imitating its overall design and using its idea of putting real honeycomb on top of milk ice cream. Milkcow’s response was adamant, arguing the idea is too simple to be protected.

Those in the industry, meanwhile, note that problems related to the rights of brands and designs stem from a lack of regulations.

“In Korea, there is currently no copyright law on food itself, only on cookbooks,” said an official at the Korea Copyright Commission. As a result, franchises such as Softree and Bonggu cannot claim copyright infringement.

“According to Subsection 1, Section 2 of copyright law, copyrights only apply to the expression of creative work,” said a commission official. “We do not see food or a recipe as an expression, only an idea.”

The freedom to exchange ideas is deemed a prerequisite for a dynamic culture, which is why food and recipes are not protected under copyright law, the official explained. As a result, some businesses attempt to receive patents or trademark their products.

Whereas copyright protects creative work, patents protect both ideas and their expressions. For example, a copyrighted cookbook cannot be reproduced, but a recipe inside can be, unless it holds a patent.

“We only allow food with unique features as a patent,” said an official at the Korean Intellectual Property Office. For example, the addition of ingredients in designated proportions, specific methods of production or use of special tools or appliances might allow a dish to be patented.

“Simple ideas such as shaved ice or putting honeycomb on top of ice cream don’t qualify for a patent or trademark rights,” the official said.

With the lack of regulations, some restaurants take matters into their own hands. Tasting Room, a fusion restaurant chain in Seoul, stopped its takeout service after discovering its competitors were analyzing dishes.

“Competing restaurants would mimic our unique dishes such as our [green monster] flatbread and call it benchmarking,” said Kim Joo-Young, chief executive of Tasting Room. “They even analyzed our dough.”

Dishes with difficult techniques are not easy to copy. However, simple and creative recipes are, Kim explained.

“We spend a great amount of effort on research and development. Copying our dishes is morally unacceptable,” said Kim. “We were even prepared to file a lawsuit and tried for a patent, but it is incredibly difficult.”

The restaurant now focuses on spreading its brand by opening more stores and emphasizing its authenticity. “We cannot fix this problem completely, but we can still let people know we are the original,” said Kim. “By declaring no takeout on our menu, we hope to make a statement.”

Other restaurants such as Per Se, Le Bernardin and Bouley in New York ask their customers not to take pictures of their food, a practice some chefs refer to as “food porn.”

Photography bans are more widespread abroad, but are being seen more frequently in Korea.

VIPS, a steakhouse chain operated by CJ, allows customers to take pictures only if the restaurant gives its consent.

“We do so mainly to protect our customers’ privacy, but also our ideas,” said an official at CJ.

Consumers agree that such steps by restaurants help to raise public awareness.

“I think it is inevitable on their part to ban takeout, and it makes me realize how frequent these kinds of conflicts are,” said a Tasting Room customer.


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