After the seminar, I spoke to Freeman, who admitted he came up with the idea for the talk after becoming fed up with other bartenders and establishments taking credit for and profiting from his recipes and techniques. (Fat washing, for example, the process by which a spirit can be infused with, say, bacon, was pioneered in part by Freeman, yet is often attributed to others.) “Someone needs to get sued … to set a precedent,” he told me.
“In no other creative business can you so easily identify money attached to your creative property,” Freeman went on. “There is an implied commerce to our intellectual property. Yet we have less protection than anyone else.”
No disrespect to Freeman, who is understandably frustrated, but he fails to address the purpose of intellectual property in copyrights and patents. This is neatly summed up in the Constitution:
[The Congress shall have power] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
Intellectual property exists to promote progress. Its purpose is not to ensure that no one’s ideas are stolen or that creative people can earn a living, unless those things are needed to promote progress in a field. The granting of temporary monopolies in the form of patents and copyrights is the price we pay for progress, not a goal in itself.
It might be completely true that bartenders are shamelessly stealing from each other, and that’s certainly something we should condemn, but we probably shouldn’t get the law involved unless we can show that this theft is causing mixology to stagnate. Along with fashion, cooking, and even magic, we’re in an industry that’s arguably better off with weak IP. This decade’s boom in craft cocktails is a sign that we’re doing OK without stricter protections, and I’d be worried that additional threats of lawsuits would have a chilling effect on the sharing of new techniques and recipes.
Perhaps Freeman or someone else has a workable, beneficial idea for expanding intellectual property related to cocktails, but I have a hard time imagining what that would be.
Update 9/1/10: Ezra Klein agrees.