Elon Musk is clearly on a mission to change a lot of fundamental beliefs and practices. The maverick entrepreneur is something of a jack of all trades and master of them all as well, having tasted a degree of success in most ventures others can only dream of having. With Paypal he changed the way online transactions were carried out. SpaceX has altered the way we think about space travel. Musk has had the audacity to think of trips to the moon as an everyday, commercial affair.
And with Tesla he is pushing the boundaries of what we think electric and hybrid vehicles are capable of doing. The Canadian-American magnate has made it amply clear that conventions and rules mean little to him. But his latest caper is quite dumbfounding, even for his standards.
“All our patents belong to you.” Like a thunderclap at dawn, Tesla’s document outlining its open-sourcing of its patents makes its intentions clear up front. The press release sent most observers of Musk and motoring in general into a deep and stolid period of cogitation.
Why would a veritable superpower in the world of electric vehicles, holding hundreds of patents, leave most of its intellectual property to be exploited by competitors and in essence, anybody?
There are a couple of reasons why the move by Tesla is so astounding. Firstly, it flies in the face of anything we’re used to seeing in the industry. Patents are a means to secure one’s work so that it cannot be used by competitors from making use of or monetary benefit from their findings. It is also uncharacteristic for Tesla to do such a thing, as until now they have used their portfolio of patents in a most conventional manner- to foster innovation within the company and to maintain the innovation chasm it has established between itself and its rivals.
This raises a simple question. Why? Why would Tesla do such a thing? It seems like the kind of move that could bring an end to its dominance in the field of electric vehicles. Also, how much access does Tesla really give with regards to its patents? Let’s find out.
The first and most emergent reason that seems to behind Tesla’s move is to allow for greater standardization in the field. As with any emerging technology, one of the greatest impediments to the spread of electric vehicles has been the lack of standardized technology.
Consider charging stations, for example. Any electric vehicle owner will tell you that the lack of charging stations is one of the main problems they face. But it isn’t just the paucity that is hurting them, but the lack of uniformity. There are several different kinds of technologies that co-exist for charging electric and hybrid cars. If, instead, there was a standard technology used for charging stations, it would allow the infrastructure to be laid out more rapidly and be more ubiquitous.
Thus, it seems that Tesla has been almost altruistic in giving away its patents. Doing this will make their technology of preference known, and give it a shot at being the standard for the industry. It seems like a bit of a calculated risk but it also gives Tesla the chance to establish itself as the company providing the standards, and hence being the leader in its space. In doing so Tesla encourages greater uniformity in the kind of technology that is used while also asserting itself as an industry pacemaker.
With patents, a lot of what is kosher and what isn’t comes down to the legalese. Tesla has stated in its release that it won’t go after anyone that applies its technology in “good faith.” We’ll probably find out exactly what that means only when someone does breach the boundaries of good faith. On this point, it’s those that will potentially make use of the patents that will need to play it safe. How reliable really is Tesla’s declassification of its patents? One wouldn’t want to be the manufacturer to make use of Tesla’s technology only to find out that they’ve made an infringement.
Thus, as with any other legal matter, it is the nitty-gritties that it will all come down to. It may seem like Tesla has kept to its maverick ways and pulled another fast one on us. But at the end of the day it will be a court of law, mostly in the USA or France (where Tesla also has some of its patents filed) that will decide how the patent publishing plays out.