The politics of FREE

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They got in and out quickly, and that clunky couch was finally gone. But I think these takers were pros, experienced at the art of getting something for nothing. Not many words were exchanged; nothing got weird or personal; no sob stories were offered.

It'd been a couple weeks of waiting, but I finally hooked up with them to execute the deal on the Winter Park Freecycle website (

"OFFER: brown sofa-sleeper (Winter Park area). The bed pulls out fine, and the outside of the couch feels like brown corduroy. It's in fair-good condition and VERY HEAVY. Must be able to move out of house on your own."

I no longer needed this couch. It wasn't really worth anything, but it didn't deserve the landfill. The best scenario for ridding myself of it was to have someone haul it away for free.

Apparently millions of other people have the same idea, and they've put it into practice in the burgeoning online market for giving away stuff. A nonprofit called the Freecycle Network is by far the biggest name in the give-it-away game, but new groups are spinning off all the time, largely because they think TFN has become too corporate. Giving away stuff can be almost a political act, a way of not using space in a landfill and opting out of the corporate consumer culture. And if that's the case, then why support a (relatively) large company that brooks little dissent from its critics, is litigious and even makes a few bucks in the game?

There are 4,676 groups with 6.4 million members in 85 countries aligned with the Freecycle Network, including multiple groups in the metro Orlando area. Just sign up for a free e-mail account on Yahoo Groups, join the Freecycle organizations of your choice and wait for approval from a local moderator. In no time you can make offers and take items; no dollars, guilt or shame necessary. Everything from diapers to DVDs, George Foreman grills to crappy sleeper sofas is up for grabs, gratis.

To understand TFN, however, you have to understand the cult of its founder, Deron Beal, whose story is an Internet classic: free-thinking guy sends out 30 e-mails to friends asking if they want to try this free-exchange thing he's cooked up, and several years later he's an Internet legend. According to the TFN site: "Our mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community."

TFN was started in 2003 by Beal in Tucson, Ariz., where he remains the sole paid employee to this day: $45,000 a year. He has critics and supporters, and most of the negative buzz is based on Beal's rep as the guy who likes to be in control and his association with corporations.

There was a critical point in his company's rapid rise: In 2005, Beal moved from a listserv to Yahoo, allowed Google ads on Freecycle sites, and began accepting corporate sponsorships from Waste Management Inc., one of the nation's largest private garbage haulers, and the Merck Family Fund. Freecycle is now affiliated with two additional sponsors besides WMI and Merck: a law firm that provides pro bono legal services and a California state waste management board that gave Freecycle $50,000 to "fund an upgrade to the Freecycle website, which would provide better opportunities for sharing of information to facilitate municipal and state materials exchange."

Such decisions prompted many of Beal's original volunteers — first-wavers — to cry "corporate corruption" and break from the fold, just as new members and groups were coming on board like crazy.

Nonetheless, the Freecycle Network has never been more active. According to an article in Time magazine, "Amid the current economic slump, Freecycle has seen a record surge in membership -— which, you guessed it, is free — as people look for new and innovative ways to tighten the belt. Worldwide, Beal says Freecycle is adding 30,000 to 60,000 members each week."

TFN is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit operated by a network of passionate volunteers. "We have over 10,000 volunteers," Beal said in an August 2007 article on "But probably the biggest challenge is just keeping that volunteer pool so that each local group has a couple of volunteers helping out. You know, you do it for six or eight months or something, and you get tired and move on, and you need to find somebody new to fill that role." (TFN's 2007 tax forms state the group has only 1,000 volunteers.)

What the NetSquared article doesn't mention is that volunteers who somehow run afoul of Beal, or of other volunteers, are quickly and quietly ousted. Since the only tool of the trade is a computer, TFN can remotely replace a moderator and reroute the group's e-mails without any notice and no interruption of service to users. One day a moderator is in, the next they're out. And though thousands of people are involved, only one person makes the rules: Beal. (Requests to talk to Beal or anyone else at headquarters were met with no response.)

According to the organization's tax forms, Beal is the chairman of a board of three: Beal himself; Jennifer Columbus, his wife, who is listed as vice-chair but draws no salary; and board secretary Jolie Sibert, who is also unpaid. Beal's background before Freecycle places him firmly in corporate territory.

Beal was a finance manager at Procter & Gamble, then he went on to study literature in Germany, where he became an environmental activist. Then Beal started another nonprofit recycling company in Tucson, Rise Inc., with which he is still involved.

One of TFN's trigger points is that the term "freecycle" may not be used as an adjective or a verb — as in "freecycling" or "freecycler" -— but only as a proper noun ("Freecycle"). The verb Beal prefers for what happens on TFN sites is "gifting": giving away something for nothing. The specifics are all spelled out at under the "Trademark Policy (FAQ)."

To most newcomers it's a distinction without a difference. Beal doesn't see it that way. In September 2007 Freecycle took Tim Oey, a former member of Freecycle Next (think Disney's Imagineers), to court over his alleged generic use of the company name. The company lost the court fight, but the case shows it is willing to step up to defend its moniker against becoming common parlance for giving stuff away.

"The Court of Appeals did not rule on the merits of TFN's trademark application," reported Tech Law Journal Online, "but held that it is not a violation of the Lanham Act to use a trademarked term in its generic sense. Nor is encouraging others to use a mark in a generic sense actionable, unless there is also infringement, false designation of origin, false advertising, or dilution."

The main philosophic tenet — the one keeping the Freecycle name on friendly terms with environmentalists — is the notion that it diverts items from the waste stream; Beal regularly reports his estimations of how much refuse Freecycle keeps out of landfills. According to an October 2008 report on the LovetoKnow website, "Freecycle members reduced garbage in landfills by nearly 500 tons a day in 2007, simply by sharing goods, rather than tossing them in the trash."


"No matter what it's called -— regifting, e-cycling, freecycling, or freesharing — it works and it's fun to participate in," writes Robin Brown of Altamonte Springs Goes Green, a Yahoo Group affiliated with the Reuseit Network, not TFN. Brown, 63, is a moderator for the group, as well as its founder, and her generic use of the word "freecycling" is as good as code for insiders.

Brown knows well the TFN policy regarding the use of "freecycle" as a verb. She was a TFN senior volunteer on the international level — "one of about seven or eight people," she says — in Washington, D.C., before she and four other former TFN members broke away in mid-2007 to start the Reuseit Network.

"We had some differences of opinion on the management and direction" of Freecycle, Brown told the Christian Science Monitor in July. "So we decided to strike out on our own."

At that time, Brown reported that there were approximately 300 Reuseit groups, and in a recent interview she quotes the number as closer to 500, estimating that "we grow about a couple of groups per week." Reuseit, like TFN, utilizes the Yahoo Groups interface, and the network has spread out of the U.S. into Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, eager to push into other regions.

Brown herself was removed from TFN without so much as a thank-you for the volunteer work she performed from 2004 to 2007.

"One day I was basically told (via e-mail) that I was not welcome and was asked to leave. I was removed from the moderator forum and was asked to turn in my group," she recalls. Like others before her, she felt hurt and betrayed, and to this day doesn't know what she did wrong. But she assumes that whatever opinions she was expressing were not sitting well with the boss and those who had his ear.

There really are "hit squads" that remotely relieve moderators of duty so that there's no interruption of service, Brown says. While removed volunteers may not like it, their groups are not disbanded.

And it's all about numbers for Beal, she says, especially now that the new Freecycle website design has been finished and groups around the network are being transitioned off of Yahoo Groups, a goal established from the beginning of TFN.

"For Beal, it's about having more control," she says. That's one of the many details that didn't sit well with Brown, whose Reuseit Network "is looking to build community, not just numbers," she says.

Reuseit is aligned with other like-minded organizations and lists them on their sites. Another service,, offers a directory for e-cycling services, no matter what the network. And there are other upstarts, like Around Again Groups, formed in 2004, which states on its founding website that, "disappointed with the administration, direction, and limitations of The Freecycle Network, the group owners completely revamped things from the bottom up to create a new alternative Free Sharing community; what is now known as the Around Again Groups."

It can be confusing, but the graphic logos of each group often help decipher their alliances. For instance, there is the Orlando FL Freecycle group, part of TFN (, and there is Orlando FL FC, part of Reuseit ( I joined both without really understanding the difference. Other Reuseit offshoots in the area: Altamonte Springs Goes Green, Dr. Phillips Freecycle, Waterford Lakes FL FC, DeLand FL Reuseit and Sanford FL Reuseit. For a complete directory, go to

Meanwhile, Freecycle diehards continue to protect their turf. Here in town, Laina and Kelly Shockley, owners of Ethos Vegan Kitchen, started a monthly themed freecycle event (note the lower-case, generic usage of the term) on the first Saturday of the month. The event has been growing slowly, Kelly Shockley says, as the couple's customers are introduced to the concept.

Still, he says they did receive backlash from area Freecycle groups about using the term "freecycle" in conjunction with their business. But that hasn't stopped their plans to expand their monthly event. (The books-themed freecycle held Feb. 7 at Ethos wasn't particularly well-attended, but there will be another March 7 with a theme not yet announced.)

"It's just about awareness," says Kelly Shockley. "?‘Ethos' describes what my wife and I are doing — creating an ethical environment for ourselves and other people to try to use biodegradable products, and trying to organize more conscious activities for our community."

Brown, too, is all about awareness. So out of deference for TFN and their mission, Brown says of Reuseit, "We don't allow people to trash Freecycle. We prefer to look forward, not backward."

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