The Fire Cider Trademark Debate


Published:

The buzz spread quickly in the spring of 2014 concerning an apple cider vinegar and herbal tonic called Fire Cider. This delicious, easy-to-make health product had recently been featured on the Dr. Oz Show by Amy Heubner of Shire City Herbals in Pittsfield, MA, a company that also recently trademarked the product name.

Because Fire Cider is a popular home remedy produced and sold by other small herbalists in stores and online, word of the new trademark restriction quickly landed two reader-submitted blog posts on the Spirit of Change website asking readers to respond and take action to “Keep Fire Cider Free.” It was not long before Shire City contacted Spirit of Change to ask why we were posting misleading information.

In response, Spirit of Change invited Dana St.Pierre of Shire City Herbals and Rosemary Gladstar of Sage Mountain in E. Barre, VT, to give us their facts and let the readers give us their feedback. Respond to editor@spiritofchange.org or comment on the article below.

Shire City Herbals

June 24, 2014
By Dana St.Pierre

Hi There,

I'm Dana St.Pierre, co-owner of Shire City Herbals, with my lovely wife, Amy, and brother-in-law, Brian. We make and sell a tonic named Fire Cider, which can be found in many stores and at our website, FireCider.com. We trademarked the term Fire Cider for our tonic over two years ago, something that recently has stirred up some controversy in the herbalist world. If you are interested in hearing more of the back story, we have described how we started our business and how we came to trademark the name at greater length here.

I recently became aware of two editorials published in Spirit of Change [reader-submitted blog posts at spiritofchange.org] and I’m compelled to address the baseless, specious claims made in these editorials and some of the websites they link to. 

The fundamental thing that jumps out at me when reading the previous editorials is the overall narrative being used to describe the situation. These editorials and all of the linked materials seem to proceed from the basic understanding that this trademark issue is a conflict with two main characters: the herbal community on one side, and Shire City Herbals on the other. Us vs. them, good vs. bad. This dualistic thinking is right there in the name they chose for their organization: Tradition not Trademark. From this flows the solution they have been pursuing, that of threatening our business in order to “get Fire Cider back for the herbal community.”

This effort has been ineffective as a way to reach that goal and the oppositional mindset is obscuring the true nature of the issue. Something about this issue seems to be allowing otherwise rational and ethical people to take liberties with the facts to advance their argument, and in the process do little to clearly explain or resolve a moderately complex legal situation. The people behind freefirecider.com have falsely and maliciously claimed that we are suing, or threatening to sue, other herbalists, that we have put herbalists out of business, and a variety of other nonsense. To directly address all of the inaccurate and misleading claims made in the previous editorials and on freefirecider.com would take up too much space here, so for those interested in more details I have collected them here.

In addition to spreading this unbalanced version of things, they have also been actively encouraging their followers to harass us and the stores that carry our product. We removed the reviews section of our Facebook page because we received hundreds of spurious negative reviews, many of which were profane, abusive, and shocking. People wished for us to fail and be rendered homeless, called us “worse than Monsanto” and used a grab bag of zesty slurs. Our retailers have been verbally abused and had their time wasted with coordinated phone calls from around the country. After a local co-op decided to keep our product on the shelf despite demands from a few upset individuals that it be removed, someone started stealing bottles of Fire Cider as some sort of bizzare protest act. This is what happens when you whip up emotion and downplay factual deliberation of a complicated issue.

The freefirecider.com people claim that they have been urging the public to call our retailers in order to “get Fire Cider back for the herbal community, not hurt anyone's business.” Sadly, they are misleading people on both points: there is no way that these activities could meet that goal, and they have been directly hurting the business we rely on for our livelihood. My opinion or your opinion or Rosemary Gladstar's opinion on what is generic are all irrelevant. It is the US government who decides, and that's that.

The only way to make a term legally generic is to take the issue up directly with the USTPO [United States Patent and Trademark Office]. These folks have not done so until last week, instead focusing their ire on us, and doing nothing to change the underlying legal grounds of the issue. That is why I call this whole campaign harassment. They have created a campaign to impugn our good name, spread rumors instead of facts, and attempted to drive a wedge between us, our stores, and our customers. Their activities amount to business torts against us. There is a clear path to getting what they say they want, but they have not taken it for many months now. Ignoring a legal and ethical means of achieving your goals and instead relying on libel and spreading rumors is harassment.

Now that they have finally chosen to focus some of their efforts on getting what they want through the appropriate legal channels, hopefully things will settle down. This is a legal issue and will only be fully resolved one way or the other through the system that exists to make exactly this kind of decision. Now would be an appropriate time for the folks behind freefirecider.com to publicly acknowledge that they have been spreading libel and rumor, instead of fact, tell their following to stop disseminating this incorrect information, stop encouraging the harassment of our small business partners, and remove all of this harmful material from their website.

One thing everyone involved seems to agree on is that herbal medicine is the medicine of the people, and that this is a very good thing. What I mean by that title is that herbal medicine is generally simple, affordable, and accessible to everyone. That's why almost everyone's grandma had a collection of teas, tonics or other preparations up her sleeve. Also a key part of “medicine of the people” is that there is no central authority or source of information. It's a tradition that in my experience is passed on person-to-person through families and communities as a part of everyday life. Everyone in my family just knew that mint tea is for upset stomachs, chamomile is for cranky kids, and garlic is for colds. This type of herbal lore is transmitted through a vast interconnected network of knowledge, with centers of collected wisdom in teachers such as Ms. Gladstar, but which is mostly diffused throughout the people. This diffuse nature is another important part of what I mean when I say “medicine of the people,” and that nature is why I don't understand the feeling that our trademark is somehow threatening the herbal tradition.  

How can a trademarked name threaten an ancient body of knowledge like the worldwide tradition of herbal medicine? Can this situation really be summarized in a dualistic formulation like tradition vs. trademark, or is there a larger holistic point of view that shows this to be a minor disagreement of commerce that will have next to no effect on the greater tradition? Can a trademark and herbal tradition coexist without worry? I think so.

Everyone out there will continue to make their own tonics and call them whatever they want. Our trademark will have no impact on people writing books, teaching classes, talking, sharing and blogging about their tonic recipes. Nobody is going to forget how to make their own remedies just because we have trademarked a name. In fact. I think the opposite will happen, and is already happening in a small way; we are taking the name and idea of spicy vinegar tonics out into the larger world of commerce and turning people on. Amy was invited to share her favorite home remedy on the Dr. Oz Show and told a national TV audience to make their own. She had access to a national platform to advocate for DIY herbal medicine because of Fire Cider's high profile in the marketplace, which we reached because we have the security of a trademark to protect the investment needed to get there.

Best,
Dana St.Pierre

 

Fire Cider — A Tradition, Not A Trademark

July 7, 2014
By Rosemary Gladstar

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

What’s all the fuss about Fire Cider? A spicy hot, deliciously sweet vinegar tonic, Fire Cider was first concocted in the kitchen at the California School of Herbal Studies in the early 1980’s. Intent on teaching my students how to make herbal preparations that were as much food as they were medicines, I was constantly experimenting and concocting all manner of medicinal herbs into a variety of recipes. Those that turned out well were shared freely with my students and our community. The idea was to bring medicinal herbalism back into people’s kitchens as part of their food and as a way of being, not just for medicinal purposes.

Fire Cider was among those early cross-over recipes—part medicine, part food—that was made and shared freely. I taught hundreds of people how to make it at the California School of Herbal Studies, which I directed and taught at from 1978 thru 1987, and also as I traveled about the country teaching about medicinal plants in conferences, schools and various events.  

With its well balanced blend of hot, spicy, and pungent flavors steeped in apple cider vinegar and finished with the rich sweetness of honey, Fire Cider is pleasantly delicious, and also a wonderful blend of medicinal herbs. The original formula contained garlic, onions, horseradish root, ginger root, hot peppers, sometimes turmeric, and often Echinacea — all powerful immune enhancers that help ward off infections, colds, flus, and bronchial congestion. We found we could use Fire Cider during the winter, a tablespoon or two a day, to help keep the immune system healthy and to ward off infections. All this, and it tasted good too!

At the time (early 1980’s), there weren’t any other Fire Cider recipes available and no products specifically named Fire Cider. There were some great old apple cider vinegar recipes that circulated, such as the popular apple cider vinegar, maple syrup (or honey) and cayenne tonic that Dr. Jarvis, an old Vermont doctor advocated for and made famous in the 1950’s. Another excellent product out at the time, similar to Fire Cider, was Cyclone Cider, which contained a blend of hot spicy herbs, apple cider vinegar and honey. A popular product, Cyclone Cider was sold in natural food stores during the 1980’s and for all I know, may still be available.

It was great to see Fire Cider, as well as many of my other favorite recipes, get “out there in the world” and gain in popularity. That was the whole idea: to transform America — and our health care system — one kitchen at a time through herbalism! Lots of people started making these recipes, adapting them, changing an ingredient and making it “theirs.” Several small herbal companies started up during this time and began packaging and selling Fire Cider in their local stores and farmers markets. I was also making it and selling it at my herb shop in the small town I grew up in northern California. It was wonderful to see the way people were so eagerly responding to herbal medicine. It was almost as if they were hungry for it, and were ready to embrace herbal medicine. Fire Cider was part of that herbal revolution; it was a medicine we could make in our kitchens, share with others, and bottle, label, sell if we chose to, and empower others to use. 

So, what is all this fuss about Fire Cider? In April of this year (2014), I received an email from a gentleman stating that he had a small herbal business and had been selling Fire Cider on Etsy, an online retail outlet for home crafted products. He was writing to tell me that he had just received a cease and desist order, which basically stated he had to stop selling Fire Cider as it had been recently trademarked. [Rosemary Gladstar has since learned the letter was a personal communication from Shire City asking the herbalist to cease sales of Fire Cider, not a cease and desist order.]  I assured him that there was some mistake and asked him to forward me the name of the company that had enforced the cease and desist order.

Thinking that this was nothing more than a mistake, I wrote a note to the owners of Shire City Herbals, the company that the cease and desist order had come from, explaining to them how and when Fire Cider had been created, that it was, in fact, made by thousands of other people, and also made and sold by at least several other companies. And that was that. I clearly thought that once being made aware of the situation, they would withdraw their trademark, or at least change the trademark to reflect their name (Shire City) so that others could continue to market the product as well.

When I heard back from Brian Huebner, the senior owner of Shire City Herbals (SCH), he explained that it wouldn’t be possible to drop the trademark. He explained that they had already invested so much money and time in their business and if they dropped the trademark other large businesses would just swoop up the name. SCH felt they had to defend the name Fire Cider by sending out cease and desist orders to other companies using the name and selling the product. Brian also shared that Fire Cider was a family recipe and that Dana’s (a younger partner of SCH) grandmother had taught him how to make it when he was a small child. I must admit, I was a bit flabbergasted when I read this, but quickly realized that it was possible that his grandmother (who was probably around my age) could have easily learned how to make the recipe by reading any one of my books that it was copyrighted in or in my home study course where its been featured since 1981 in the chapter on Herbs for Winter Health, or in several educational videos that have been circulating since the 1980’s. Dana, the partner who claims this is his family recipe, was also a student at a wholistic school of healing that had an herbal component where Fire Cider could easily have been included in the curriculum.

In any case, the Shire City Herbal owners made it quite clear that they were unwilling to drop the trademark on Fire Cider. Unbeknownst to me, word had gotten out through several of the business that had received orders to stop selling Fire Cider and there was a virtual outcry on the Internet. Even though I run an herbal business and use social networking through my business account, I’ve never been on Facebook and seldom even use the Internet. My son and a few close friends help me out in this department by posting updates on my website and Facebook page. They began reporting there was a virtual firestorm going on the Internet over Fire Cider, and, unfortunately, some pretty nasty remarks were flying back and forth from both fronts. Though Shire City claim that there was a nasty outpouring and a huge amount of negativity being generated towards them, they fail to mention that there were far more thoughtful and insightful dialogues directed towards them in an attempt to help them understand the enormity of what they had done by claiming a product that clearly had been around long before their company existed, and then demanding that other companies stop producing it.

Though I’m insanely busy and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was get pulled into an argument over who has the rights to Fire Cider, I felt it was important to step in and try to reclaim Fire Cider as a legacy herbal product and a people’s medicine. Though I fully believe in trademarks and recognize the need for businesses to lay claim to products and titles they’ve created and invested small fortunes in, I find it unjust that someone can lay claim to a name/product that without question has been circulating in the world, in the marketplace, in books, and articles long before the company SCH was even started (the company is four years old) and quite possibly before, at least, some of the owners were born. Quite clearly, the trademark lawyers didn’t do a good job in their investigations and made an error in granting a trademark to a name/product that was in such free circulation.

I sent the owners of Shire City Herbals a second letter explaining that we weren’t asking them to stop selling Fire Cider, as we could all appreciate their investment of money and time in their product. We were suggesting instead that they change the name to something that would be more reflective of their formula, such as Shire City Fire Cider, enabling other companies who had also made similar investments to continue to sell Fire Cider.

The Shire City owners always wrote back respectfully, stating that they were unable to drop the trademark because if they did a large company would swoop in and buy up the name. It seemed a ludicrous response since they were the large company swooping in and putting other herb companies out of business, or at least, demanding that they stop selling Fire Cider. Another claim that Shire City made was that they were doing “good work” spreading Fire Cider to thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. This statement, too, sounded very naïve and self serving to me, as it failed to take into account that hundreds of small businesses were already doing this and had been doing it far longer than SCH had been in existence. Furthermore, we don’t need one big business to make Fire Cider for everyone in the country; a much more sustainable model is for many small businesses to supply their local stores, farmers markets and communities. Fire Cider is an emblem, a trademark, for that model of doing business.

Within a few hours of notice of the Fire Cider trademark, comments began pouring in on the Shire City Facebook page, but because most of the comments were being erased a Free Fire Cider Facebook page was set-up so that people could voice their opinions. Shire City Herbals reported the page and had it removed from Facebook. A petition for Shire City Herbals to drop the trademark — not to stop selling the product — was started and within 24 hours there were over 1,000 signatures; a few days later there were over 6,000 signatures. I believe the petition at last count had over 9,000 names on it. Though the Shire City Herb owners have accused me of igniting this firestorm, I, in fact, had little to do with it. It was the people’s reaction and protest to something that felt wrong to them. This was the first time in the herbal community that a popular herbal product that has been made for decades was usurped and trademarked. And, rightly so, people were angry about it.

After the Free Fire Cider Facebook page was removed, making it virtually impossible for people to voice their opinions, I decided to step in and began working with a small nucleus of people so that we could effectively organize ourselves, keep people informed, and decide on the most effective plan of action. Our intention was to be a voice of reason, to attempt to get Fire Cider back, but not to vilify Shire City Herbals. I think most of us are sympathetic to the fact that SCH is a small business (though much larger than many of the businesses that they sent cease amd desist orders to) and we don’t want to see them fail. The letters I sent to the owners of SHC, and others posted on the Free Fire Cider website are reflective of this attitude, and are neither demanding nor unfair, but are thoughtful and genuinely written. (All of my letters and postings are available for review at our website www.freefirecider.com.)

When there was no response to our requests, we began a national boycott in hopes that this might get their attention. Again, no one wants to see SCH go out of business nor to even stop selling their product, but to remove the trademark so that other companies can continue to make Fire Cider as well. I should mention also that we’ve had apple farmers write who were astounded that the name was trademarked because, apparently, there is an old fashion apple cider product, similar to iced cider, called Fire Cider.

If this were about just one herbal product and/or a name, would it be worth the time and effort? Those of us who are advocating to free Fire Cider are busy with our own vibrant lives; we have students, classes, events, and our own small businesses to run. Who has the time to fight this thankless battle? However, if Shire City Herbals is allowed to “own” a product that they neither created nor named, it sets a precedent in the herbal community. What happens to all our other popular legacy herbal recipes? Zoom Balls, Kava Chai, Chaga Chai, Pesto, Nesto (nettle pesto), Kloss’s Liniment, Miracle Grains, or even Elderberry Syrup. What will prevent other Shire City Herbals from trademarking these popular herbal products, which prevents others from making and selling them?

We’ve been told legally there’s nothing that can be done to protect the legacy of herbal products; one has to be Coca Cola or Camel cigarettes to have that liberty. However, as an herbal community we can create a special category, a safe haven for “Herbally Owned” legacy products — popular herbal products that have been made, used, and sold for decades. We can protect our traditions and we can start by freeing Fire Cider from its trademark. Fire Cider is a tradition, not a trademark. Though we’re told legally there’s nothing that can be done, we feel there is something and we’re willing to do it.

I believe firmly in those famed words of Margaret Meade that clearly proclaim that as committed individuals, we can, indeed, change the world and make a difference. We are asking people who believe in our collective herbal heritage and knowledge and who wish to help preserve our herbal traditions, to make a difference by helping to lift the trademark from Fire Cider by:

  1. Make your own Fire Cider [see below]. It is simple, fun and easy to make. Recipes are numerous and can be found on blogs, in books, online, on videos.
  2. Sign the Free Fire Cider Petition. The petition will be used to present to the trademark lawyers.
  3. Join the Fire Cider boycott by asking your local natural food and herb stores to discontinue selling SCH Fire Cider until the trademark is removed.
  4. Become involved by visiting the Free Fire Cider website at www.freefirecider.com.

Colby and Ayla Bruntil filling their Fire Cider jars.Make Your Own Fire Cider
It’s fun, simple, and easy to make. There are hundreds of variations on this recipe. Here’s the original.

½ cup grated fresh horseradish root
½ cup or more fresh chopped onions
¼ cup or more chopped garlic
¼ cup or more grated ginger
Chopped fresh or dried cayenne pepper, whole or powdered, to taste.* Optional ingredients: turmeric, echinacea, cinnamon, etc.

* To taste means should be hot, but not so hot you can’t tolerate it. Better to make it a little milder than too hot; you can always add more pepper later if necessary.

Place herbs in a half-gallon canning jar and cover with enough raw unpasteurized apple cider vinegar to cover the herbs by at least three to four inches. Cover with a tight fitting lid. Place jar in a warm place and let set for three to four weeks. Best to shake every day to help in the maceration process. After three to four weeks, strain out the herbs and reserve the liquid. Add honey to taste. Warm the honey first so it mixes in well. “A little bit of honey helps the medicine go down…” Your Fire Cider should taste hot, spicy, and sweet. Rebottle and enjoy! Fire Cider will keep for several months unrefrigerated if stored in a cool pantry, but it’s better to store in the refrigerator if you’ve room. A small shot glass daily serves as an excellent tonic or take teaspoons if you feel a cold coming on. Take it more frequently if necessary to help your immune system do battle.

Thank you sincerely,
Rosemary Gladstar

See also:
Winter's Holistic Medicine Chest
Winter Health the Natural Living Way

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