'Fire Cider' brand ignites dispute
PITTSFIELD -- A local company that trademarked the brand "Fire Cider" for its health tonic caused a considerable stir on the Web after it blocked 13 online retailers from use of the name.
Shire City Herbals of Pittsfield recently had Etsy.com deactivate several sellers' listings of similar tonics called "fire cider."
Members of the herbalist community, after learning of the move, started an online petition that presently has nearly 6,000 signatures.
The petition identifies fire cider as "a traditional name for a blend of herbs used by thousands of herbalists worldwide," and asks Shire City Herbals to revoke the trademark.
"Trademarking this name is like trademarking the word 'pizza,' " the petition reads.
Allowing some variation, makers of fire cider use as core ingredients apple cider vinegar, horseradish, garlic, honey, ginger and more. The mixture, popular among herbalists for decades, is said to give the immune system a boost, fight nasal congestion and aid digestion.
Amy Huebner, one of three who co-founded Shire City Herbals in 2011, said the trademark won't stop people using the name at farmers markets and other small, herbal marketplaces and other "non-commercial uses."
Instead, she said it protects the company and its product on the international marketplace, from national and multinational corporations, and on the Internet.
"We're starting to get national attention and wanted to protect ourselves," Huebner said in an interview with The Eagle. "When bigger companies see a unique product -- at that point we're just a small fish.
"We don't want to see a PepsiCo 'Fire Cider' that uses extracts rather than real ingredients," she added.
Scott Schuster, a trademark professional in Albany, N.Y., advised the company to trademark the name after trying the product at the Honest Weight Food Co-op in that city. The federal government granted the company rights to the name Fire Cider in December 2012.
Opposing voices in the herbal community say the name wasn't Shire City's to trademark.
Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, author of many books and co-founder of Sage Mountain Herbs in Vermont, claims to have "first made fire cider and gave it its name [more than] 35 years ago."
"In the meantime I've taught hundreds if not thousands of people to make it, who have them taught others. This product is clearly a 'people's medicine' and isn't to be 'owned,'" Gladstar wrote in an email.
The recipe, Gladstar said, was based on similar concoctions used by her grandmother and probably others before. It appeared in books of hers beginning in the ‘90s.
After first contacting another of Shire City's founders, Dana St. Pierre, Gladstar went public in her opposition.
"The reason this has gotten such a strong response is because it reads like an attempt to capitalize on [herbalism's tradition of sharing remedies]," Ryn Midura, of Boston's CommonWealth Center for Herbal Medicine, wrote in a blog.
That's not the way big corporations think, though, St. Pierre points out in a post on Shire City's blog.
"[Big corporations] are out there and employ an army of people to hunt for new products and ideas," he said. "Fire Cider is the name of our product, and without a trademark we were vulnerable to the attention of larger companies. We would be subject to imitation or the very real possibility of a national company copying our brand name and trademarking it themselves, thus putting our entire business and livelihood at risk."
Shire City, St. Pierre further contends, took neither the recipe nor name from Gladstar.
Michael Blackmore, of Mad Crow Herbalism in Jamaica Plain, said "probably the trademark office had no idea of [fire cider's] actual history."
The Etsy sellers were able to re-list their products under different names like "WildFire Cider" or "Dragonfire Cider," according to Huebner.
"And many of these listings were back up for sale within hours," Huebner said.
Shire City sells the product at hundreds of local and regional stores and online at firecider.com.
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