Elon Musk tore down a wall of patents yesterday, and the tech world celebrated as if it were the Berlin Wall coming down all over again.
In a surprise move yesterday, Elon Musk announced that Tesla Motors would be open-sourcing its patents. In a blog post, Musk assailed the intellectual property regime that restricts innovation: "Too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors."
But it wasn't just to prove an academic point. He's trying, of course, to save the world. Musk wrote that the company had patented its work on electric vehicles—many of which related to drivetrains—for fear of being overwhelmed by the efforts of large car companies. But, it seems, he would have been happy to have had healthy competition.
What's he's seen, instead, is entrenchment. "Electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales." According to Musk, it's impossible for Tesla alone to manufacture enough electric vehicles to put a dent into the carbon crisis. So why not let a thousand manufacturing plants bloom?
The move also highlighted growing opposition in Silicon Valley to the United States' cumbersome system of intellectual property law, which many say holds back collaboration. “In a nutshell, I think that Elon has set a great example for the rest of the industry and everyone should follow,” Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, told VentureBeat. “Patents have become a destructive force — they are line nuclear weapons and no one wins. Wired called the decision a "boost to the larger patent reform movement, which aims to reduce patent litigation across the tech world."
Don't assume it's all altruism, though. The move also means that other companies can build Tesla's fueling stations for them. And though Tesla will be letting other companies use their patents, they won't be legally giving them up, and they will still be seeking new patents in the future. You know, just in case.
San Francisco magazine also announced that it expected to introduce the Frisky, its own electric car based on the Tesla patents, by 2016.