Do you believe that people have the right to any type of healing that calls to them? Do you believe that traditional, folk medicine should be accessible to all people? Do you believe that herbal remedies should be free of corporatization?
If you answered yes to these questions, then you need to know about the fire cider controversy. Fire cider is a traditional herbal remedy that’s been used for decades (probably longer) to treat cold and flu symptoms as well as other issues. As with any folk remedies, there is no set recipe – ingredients change according to availability and the personal preferences of the maker.
The name fire cider was, it is claimed, coined by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. If you have read any of her books (and I highly recommend them), you will see that she used this term in her copyrighted material over 20 years ago.
About a year ago, a company called Shire City Herbals* made a bold move – they trademarked the term fire cider. Not Shire City Fire Cider, but Fire Cider. And then, a few months ago, they sent a cease and desist letter to several online marketplaces, including Etsy, which resulted in the removal of any listings of fire ciders sold by competitors.
Herbalists around the country have responded with shock, outrage and disappointment. A petition was started. Letters were exchanged (some not so nice^). Meetings were held.
Why the controversy? The term fire cider belongs to no one. As the petition reads, this trademark could be compared with someone trademarking the word “pizza.” Or how about “cordial” (as in the liqueur) or “macaroni and cheese.” These three terms refer to generalized recipes that people and businesses individualize. Imagine being a business and receiving a cease and desist letter from someone who had trademarked the term pizza. Now you’re Papa Murphy’s Cheesy Rounds or Italian Circle Hut.
One of the first arguments made by Shire City was that no one knows what fire cider is and that after three years of hard work and money spent on marketing, they wanted to protect their investment. Whether or not people know what a particular generic term means seems irrelevant to me (“generic” simply means “not specific” and is not synonymous with “popular,” “well-known” or “recognizable”). The fact remains that this term has been in use since long before Shire City came along – they did not create the name or the remedy. Further, putting time and money into a marketing campaign should not give them or any other business the right to trademark a generic term, especially one that has been used by other herbalists and herbal businesses long before Shire City came along.
Not long ago, it seemed as though there might be a happy conclusion to this issue. But sadly, Shire City has recently posted their intention to retain their trademark and continue to prevent other herbal healers and businesses from selling their own versions of fire cider on commercial platforms like Etsy (unless they refrain from using the term "fire cider" to describe their product, which is like asking bath and body sellers to stop using the term "balm" in their moisturizer product names). This is what they have to say about it:
Our trademark restricts the commercial use of ‘Fire Cider’ to the product our customers now enjoy. It protects both the integrity of our brand name, and the investment of time, money and energy spent building that brand… Commercial means selling wholesale or selling on a national or international platform or website, for example: Amazon.com, Ebay.com, Etsy.com, etc.
I found this comment to really say it all:
The bottom line is that people have been making and using fire cider long before Shire City ever came along. So for them, or anyone else to claim any right over this generic term is, I believe, a troubling and dangerous trend.
I understand their desire to protect their product and investments in their business. I’ve been in the herbal business and I know how hard it is to survive, to increase visibility in a saturated market and to protect one’s unique formulas. However, I don’t see why personalizing the trademark (i.e. Shire City Fire Cider) wouldn’t achieve these same results.
The question is, do we want to see traditional herbal remedies become the intellectual property of businesses? Do we want to allow people or businesses to block competitors from selling traditional herbal remedies that were in use long before anyone involved (the trademark holders or competitors) started selling them? What’s next? “Black Walnut Salve?” “Dry shampoo?” “Vinegar rinse?” “Chest rub?”
The beauty of herbal/folk medicine is that it is for the people. It’s accessible to all. It’s what we share amongst one another, from generation to generation – tried and true remedies, recipes and formulas. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with people building ethical businesses in this field, I believe the emergence of corporate practices within the herbal community spells its doom: limitation, restriction, censorship, regulation, and privatization. Everything that folk medicine isn’t.
Thank you for protecting the spirit and preservation of folk medicine!
*To be clear, Shire City Herbals is not a corporation. Indeed, it is run by only three people who believe in sharing this herbal remedy with the world. I appreciate their passion for fire cider (and here I use the generic term) and am always glad to see herbal companies grow and enjoy success. However, I don’t believe that anyone should be able to claim a trademark over a term they did not create, especially a generic term that’s been used for decades within the herbal community.
^If you choose to join the fight to protect the generic use of the term fire cider, please do so with the greatest respect. Shire City has already received a lot of hate mail, and there’s no excuse for that. Whether you are an herbalist or simply someone who wants to protect folk medicine, we must conduct ourselves in a manner that is beyond reproach. If we are fighting for the people’s medicine, we must respect all the people, even those with whom we don’t agree.