Why did Tesla release all of its patents?
Late last week, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced that the electric car company would be releasing all its patents, those for the cars and for its Supercharger stations, to anyone interested in them. Musk believes that rather than create competition, this bold move will promote the further development of much needed electric-vehicle technology.
Musk made the announcement on Tesla’s blog stating that developing these major technological concepts without sharing them with the world was like leaving “landmines” along the path they carved to create compelling electronic vehicles and therefore contradictory to its goal. To combat this, Musk explained that, “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use [its] technology.”
Initially, Tesla kept all patents private, fearing that more established auto companies would take its technology to produce cheaper cars and, eventually, put Tesla out of business. However, Musk quickly realized that electric car programs at major companies are nearly non-existent, constituting an average of less than 1 percent of its sales.
This lack of electric-car production means that Tesla not only has little to no current competition from the auto giants, but that it is among the few frantically trying to produce enough electric cars to counteract the effects of carbon-producing vehicles. With new-vehicle production approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet at about 2 billion cars, it’s impossible for Tesla to build enough cars to effectively combat the carbon crisis.
At the end of the blog post, Musk boldly stated, “Our competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”
While this move may seem a bit wild in our patent-heavy society, Musk makes a fair point: there is a massive market for electric cars that Tesla can’t fill alone. However, with its patents available to everyone, the world will be able to contribute to the electric-car market and, therefore, to the movement towards a mode of transportation free of carbon emissions.
Looking back, the biggest hurdle in technological inventions hasn’t been competition from copycats but rather creating a market for the product. With major inventions, like Tesla’s electric car, the potential market is often far larger than the first few developers can manage. The challenge then is converting the potential customers of the market to actual customers. This conversion is often spurred along by competition. Competition lowers costs for the consumer, leads to product recognition, the development of industry techniques and standards, and, ultimately, the improvement of the product itself.
Patents often get in the way of the development of a new technology. For example, when the Wright brothers got their broad airplane patent they threatened competitors with lawsuits creating a major distraction that stunted the development of the industry. In 1917, the government finally intervened and forced the Wrights and their rivals into a patent-sharing agreement so they could develop planes for the military.
Perhaps Elon Musk has taken a closer look at patent use over the course of history and realized that without them, Tesla can avoid unnecessary lawsuits and drama within the industry to further the development of what matters most to them, electric vehicles that can combat the production of carbon producing cars.
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