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Free as in Speech and Beer: The Internet, Gift Economies and the Intellectual Property Crisis

by Darren Wershler-Henry

In the aftermath of the dot-com bust comes Darren Wershler-Henry, an irreverent voice dancing on the dead bones of e-business hype and devalued high-tech stocks. Free as in Speech and Beer is a wonderful primer on how the Internet and digital technology have radically changed the nature of economic activity and the ethics that govern all our virtual exchanges.

Wershler-Henry’s key theme is “the fraught relationship that networked society has to one word – FREE,” contending that there are two related forces driving digital economics. The first is free-as-in-speech, which refers to the techno-anarchist credo that states it is morally wrong to charge people for software or other forms of intellectual property. The second is free-as-in-beer, the truism that people like to acquire things of value without expending any energy or resources.

Wershler-Henry has a cheeky gift for simplification that will make copyright lawyers envious. By relying on non-geek, non-corporate, non-legal language, he walks us right into the hardball politics and litigious implications of different notions of “free.” The book engagingly brings to life an important debate, the long-term outcome of which will determine the rules of participation (and profit, or not-for-profit) in the expanding digital marketplace.

Should we be interested? Do we understand what’s at stake? Do we know who the players are? Wershler-Henry does. He also has the journalistic panache to translate complex copyright issues into easily digested prose informed by relevant anecdotes. Such examples as the Microsoft antitrust case, Napster, and the emergence of the Linux operating system are smoothly cited as evidence that economic structures are being altered within a bandwidth-obsessed media culture.

Free as in Speech and Beer has a provisional quality, as if the story is moving so fast and in so many directions that a certain amount of glib surmise is required. Sometimes it feels like you’re scrolling through a web site that will soon need an update. Despite these tics, the book addresses white-hot issues and provides clarification and elaboration in simple, honest terms.