So Tesla CEO Elon Musk has thrown the cat among the pigeons and declared that Tesla will open up their patents on their inventions. His collective call to industry is to take action to ‘build it, and they will come.’ The industry being those making electric cars and the chargers, the ‘they’ being the purchasers of these cars. Musk’s press release from mid June is here: All Our Patent Are Belong To You
Why is Musk doing this?
Let’s be blunt. Tesla are forerunners in the electric car market but there can be no market (of any scale) unless they build a huge charging network. So if that doesn’t happen then Tesla can’t sell cars. No supply means no real market. But on a larger scale is he being philanthropic with their hard-earned patents? Or is it just great marketing? Personally, I see patents are being barriers, not enablers, of new products.
Why are patents stifling competition?
Patents were designed to give protection, for a defined period of time, to offset the huge amount of R&D that some products need like drugs for example. Bring new drugs to market can take years and huge amounts of money and in the absence of patents companies simply won’t invest, as competitors can enter at any stage, so we can’t avail of these new drugs.
But…the downside is that patents are used to block technology more than enable it. Consider IBM who were awarded 6809 patents in 2013. They have been the highest patentee for over 20 years. Many of these are created to simply block other players from getting a foothold. Then you get to patent stalemate and have companies registering patents as blockers, not enablers.
Can’t we bypass patents to allow invention and innovation?
There is a way around this, without infringing on patents and ending up fighting legal cases. Elon Musk, and others, are opening up patents once they are used within ‘good faith’. Twitter, in 2012, announced that they would allow others to access their patents and would only invoke them ‘in defence’ which is great. As far as I know, but could be wrong, Twitter let their staff register the patent instead of themselves. It means they manage to retain great inventors in the organisation as the creator still gets the IP on the patent. Please add a comment if I’m not correct on that.
In the 80s IBM opened their technology with their ‘open architecture’ which created the market for PCs as other companies could then use their blueprints. So it has been proven to allow small markets rapidly scale.
Is Elon Musk a modern-day Bruce Wayne type Batman character who uses his fortune for the good of mankind? I’m not so sure. But would I buy an electric car? You bet I would if I could afford it, and could charge it when I drove.