A gift economy is one in which services or goods are given without an agreement as to a suitable payment or trade to be made in return.
Instead of monetary gain, gift economies often rely on intangible rewards like a sense of contribution, community, honor or prestige. The idea is that although gifts may not be directly reciprocated, broad participation leads to a system in which people give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs.
Gift economies can also be reciprocity-based or may require a return of the original gift. In these cases the distinctions between a gift economy, a sharing economy and a barter economy become blurred. However, the concepts are not mutually exclusive and people often participate in all three simultaneously without ever really thinking about it as such.
In information technology (IT), one of the best examples of gift economy principles in action is the open source movement. Open source software, for example, is usually developed as a public collaboration and made freely available.
It can be argued that the gift economy was the first type in existence. Prehistoric social groups collaborated to feed, hunt, gather and care for the young in a loosely reciprocal gift economy.
In this video, economist James Quilligan and Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, discuss gift economies and the Commons: