Why would a capitalist give something away for free? To make money, of course. IBM, which announced last month that it would give away free access to 500 of its patents, is clearly convinced that charity is the path to profit in the digital age.
Big Blue took the Luddite world by surprise when it announced that it was pledging a valuable chunk of its patent portfolio to the free-software movement: anybody with a ponytail and the blessing of the open-source movement can use the patented material for free; everyone else has to keep on paying for it.
The statement read more like a manifesto than a press release. "Unlike the preceding Industrial Economy, the Innovation Economy requires that intellectual property be deployed for more than just providing the owner with freedom of action and income generation," the announcement said. Clearly, lower-case letters were not sufficient to convey news of such magnitude: that property no longer makes the world go round.
So has technology really rewritten the rules of economics? Is IBM right that cyberspace demands a whole new way of doing business? Various communitarian academics have been saying that for years; but when the message comes from the world's largest patent-holder - and one of history's greatest experts at making money from intellectual property - it is clearly time for even the commune-haters to listen.
Big Blue is not planning to give away its worldly goods and live the rest of its corporate life in a monastery: on the same day that it proclaimed the big giveaway, the US patent office announced that IBM had won more new patents than anyone else last year - for the 12th year running.
With 40,000 patents, IBM clearly still has one foot firmly in the world of property. But it is also dabbling seriously in the counter-culture - and it hopes to persuade others to join forces to create a "patent commons", a place where ideas will be freely shared in the hope of creating more of them.
IBM has already been testing this idea for years by supporting Linux, the grand old man of open-source software and Microsoft's biggest rival. IBM sells servers loaded with free Linux software, while Microsoft charges for Windows. Microsoft makes money selling its operating system; IBM hopes to make just as much or more by selling products and services to support the free alternative to Windows.
The idea is that money and freedom have struck up a whole new relationship in cyberspace. The old logic of patents was this: inventors needed them to protect themselves from the idea snatchers. And society needed them because inventors needed them: if creative spirits could not protect themselves from thieves, then they would stop inventing altogether - and then where would we get our iPods?
But in cyberspace that is not always true, argues Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School. When it comes to software, where each inventor must build on what went before, sharing may well be more productive than hoarding. Prof Lessig points out that software patents are themselves a relatively new invention: until the 1980s, they were unavailable.
He argues that they stifle, rather than foster, innovation. Software patents, Prof Lessig says, can create an "anti-commons": a world where "overlapping property rights make it impossible for anyone to develop a resource for fear of being held up by one of the rights-holders".
The counter-culturalists of the open-source movement certainly know about that problem: the biggest threat to open-source software has always been the prospect of patent lawsuits brought by people who own bits of code that somehow ended up in the free version.
In a world where patent litigation costs an average of $4m per side, free software has always been vulnerable, says Mark Lemley, a patent expert at Stanford Law School. He says big companies protect themselves by a system of "mutually assured destruction": if you sue me for infringing your patents, I will sue you for snitching mine. "The problem with open source is that they unilaterally disarmed," he says. Now, with 500 patents from IBM, "they can strike back," he says.
All this does not mean the end of the software patent as we know it. "The issue here is not one of commerce versus anti-commerce," says Mike Godwin of Public Knowledge, a lobby group campaigning to strengthen the public domain, "but one of two different models of software development in competition with each other."
And somewhere in the middle, there is IBM. "The industry is on its way to a new equilibrium between proprietary and open source," says Bob Sutor, IBM's vice-president for standards. On one end of the spectrum, there is Microsoft, the champion of the proprietary model; on the other end, there is the free love and beansprouts crowd at Linux. "There is money to be made in the middle," says Mr Sutor.
So IBM, one of the greatest beneficiaries of the intellectual property system in America, has decided the best thing it can do for its business is to waive at least some of its patent rights: that is nothing short of astounding. The move could well cause tremors throughout the business world: Sun Microsystems followed quickly that it would make the source code of its flagship operating system available for free; others may follow.
Does that prove Communism is alive and well and living on the internet? Not quite, comrade. "The point is not that we'd be better off without proprietary technology, or without property at all," writes Prof Lessig in his book, The Future of Ideas. "The point, instead, is one that has been obvious since the birth of our republic - that a balance between proprietary and non-proprietary property is better than either extreme." IBM could not have put it better. email@example.com