Most tech companies devote considerable time, money, and effort to enforcing their patents. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has decided to buck that longtime tradition by opening up his company’s electric-car patents to the world.
In a corporate blog posting, Musk framed the gesture in altruistic terms. “We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform,” he wrote. “Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers.”
By opening up Tesla’s patents, Musk frees up other car companies to build electric vehicles based off his engineers’ hard work and designs. That could greatly profit Tesla, which is building an enormous “gigafactory” that will produce lithium-ion batteries for vehicles; more electric vehicles on the road will equal a greater demand for those batteries, which in turn could fatten Tesla’s bottom line—no matter who happens to actually build the vehicles themselves. Given the gigafactory’s $5 billion cost, Tesla needs widespread demand for electric cars.
In other words, the stakes for Musk couldn’t be higher. Yet he also used the blog posting to have a little fun, riffing off a popular Internet meme for the title, “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.” That confounded a lot of reporters who haven’t spent a lot of time on Reddit or the “Something Awful” forums. “Apparently, lots of confused media inquiries about the blog title,” he later wrote on Twitter. “Look, we just to make sure they don’t set us up the bomb.”
Patent litigation is a huge issue among technology companies at the moment—just look at Samsung and Apple, which have burned untold millions of dollars firing patent-infringement suits against each other. But while there’s universal appeal in the idea of putting lawsuits and corporate battles behind in favor of focusing on creating great products, it seems unlikely that Musk’s maneuver will convince other firms to open up their intellectual portfolios.
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