Yesterday I went to my local health food store to purchase a few herbs and supplies that I needed for an immunity class I was teaching over the weekend. While I was there I also picked up a bottle of fire cider, the strongly infused, herby, garlic-y vinegar. I figured I might as well bring it to show my class and have them taste a potent traditional recipe that’s helpful for cold and flu season. I usually make my own fire cider, but since I didn’t have any of my own on hand, I wanted to try the Shire City Herbals brand. I’d seen them around before, they have a cool label, and they are a local Massachusetts company – bonus points all around. Later I tried it, and it’s good stuff. I was pleased.
However, ironically enough, just hours after I had purchased the fire cider I was alerted to some alarming news. Herbal friends on Facebook started posting information that Shire City Herbals had, unbeknownst to anyone else, previously filed a trademark on the words “fire cider”. My first thought was “that’s ridiculous!” and then my second thought was “wait, can they really do that?!”
The thing is, Shire City did not invent the name “fire cider.” That name has been around for decades (if not longer) and was coined, or at least made famous, by Rosemary Gladstar of Sage Mountain. Shire City was just the first to legally claim it as its own. It now officially belongs to them, not to all of us fire cider makers. It’s as if they took the name of their grandmother’s family recipe and slapped a trademark on it, preventing any other grandchildren from calling their versions of the recipe the original name. What was once a part of herbal folklore is now legal property of a business.
Actually, this business went beyond just trademarking, since anyone can add an unregistered ™ to anything. The purpose of an unregistered trademark is to put your competition on notice of your intellectual property. (Read more here.) Shire City went one step further by choosing to register the term "fire cider" with the government for an official trademark certificate. Now they can use a registered mark to signify that “fire cider” is their intellectual property. If you search for a while you can spot the ® subtly hidden in the leaves and branches on the right side of the label.
Shire City’s response to concerned Facebook postings is straight forward: “We are not asking anyone to change their recipe or process, just the name of the product they are selling.”
I am sure the owners of City Shire Herbs are good people, and they probably didn’t intend to alienate the herbal community with their product. In fact, if it weren’t for all this nonsense they should be applauded for bringing more awareness to traditional recipes like fire cider. I understand the need of a small business to protect itself and its products, and I whole-heartedly support herbalists making a living from their craft. But this tactic of trademarking the name of a traditional herbal remedy just feels so weird and antithetical to the whole spirit of herbalism from which fire cider itself originates. That a common term of folk herbalism now “belongs” to company is a scary and disconcerting thing indeed. Sue Kusch of The Withered Herb talks more about the ownership of language and her personal experience here. My concern is that this sets a precedent for future ownership of folkloric terms. What’s next?
On a personal note, every winter I make a batch of fire cider and sell it for holiday gifts. This year I took a lovely recipe presented by Juliet Blankespoor and made it my own with a few omissions (no peppers) and a few additions (schisandra berries). I labeled it as Red Fire Cider. What will I do next year? Well, the same thing again… it’s going to be called fire cider, because that’s what it is. And I won’t be alone in doing it. In fact, I bet many who are fans of this little blog will be doing it too.
I am not writing all this because I am upset that a company prohibits me from labeling my products as Fire Cider, but because I think it foreshadows a larger and potentially more destructive trend that is to come. I ask and encourage the herbal community to speak up and join in this conversation. Please, let’s share our thoughts and concerns in a constructive way. I know it sounds naive in our market-driven world, but the beauty and power of traditional herbal medicine is that it belongs to all of us. I really believe that, which is why I feel called to speak up about it.
**Update: Right before publishing this post I read this very excellent article by Ryn at the CommonWealth Center for Herbal Medicine. It’s an insightful overview of the fire cider situation, with responses by Shire City Herbals. I hope more of us will keep writing about, asking questions, and continuing this dialogue.