The elec­tric car­maker's decision could spur a revo­lu­tion in green ve­hi­cles and in the way patents are viewed


The US elec­tric car­maker's decision could change the way patents are viewed

PER­HAPS ONLY Elon Musk could have done this. After all, only a rev­o­lu­tion­ary can set off a revo­lu­tion. Musk is an en­gi­neer-turned-en­tre­pre­neur who has set up im­pos­si­ble busi­nesses—an elec­tric car company,Tesla,and a rocket build­ing company,SpaceX. His Tesla Model S is an elec­tric dream—it goes from zero to 60 in four seconds flat—and he is the only in­di­vid­ual to have suc­cess­fully launched a space cap­sule into or­bit and brought it back safely. He was one of the five Sil­i­con Val­ley whizz guys who founded PayPal, an on­line pay­ment sys­tem for pur­chases on the In­ter­net, and sold it to eBay for a cool $1.5 bil­lion. But this col­umn is not about the tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs he has made. Nor is it about his business acu­men.

Musk is be­ing cel­e­brated here for his decision in June this year to give up the huge arse­nal of patents that Tesla holds on the most ad­vanced elec­tric ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy.All of a sud­den pro­pri­etary knowhow that is lit­er­ally streets ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion has been made open source in a move that is with­out prece­dent.The an­nounce­ment was made with­out fan­fare in a stun­ning June 12 blog post. “Yes­ter­day, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto head­quar­ters.That is no longer the case,” he wrote. “They have been re­moved, in the spirit of the open source move­ment, for the ad­vance­ment of elec­tric ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy.Tesla Mo­tors was cre­ated to ac­cel­er­ate the ad­vent of sus­tain­able trans­port. If we clear a path to the cre­ation of com­pelling elec­tric ve­hi­cles, but then lay in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty land­mines be­hind us to in­hibit oth­ers, we are act­ing in a man­ner con­trary to that goal. Tesla will not ini­ti­ate patent law­suits against any­one who,in good faith, wants to use our tech­nol­ogy.”

It was some­thing of a shock and awe mo­ment in US patent his­tory. Hun­dreds of com­ments that were posted within hours of Musk’s blog were lauda­tory for the most part about “a great idea full of wis­dom and courage”.Quite a few were scep­ti­cal while oth­ers were blown away by the decision which they thought was sim­ply in­sane. That is be­cause Tesla has a trea­sure chest of patents (and many in the pipe­line) for all kinds of tech­nol­ogy that has lifted the elec­tric ve­hi­cle from the garage of hum­drum, lum­ber­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties to a sen­sa­tion on the road. It has patents for all man­ner of pi­o­neer­ing tech­nol­ogy—from safer bat­tery packs and faster recharg­ing sta­tions to soft­ware for power man­age­ment sys­tems. And now Musk is of­fer­ing it in good faith to the world.

Tesla’s move has once again, but more force­fully, reignited the de­bate on the neg­a­tive as­pects of patent­ing which most peo­ple who have stud­ied the sub­ject say only serves to sti­fle in­no­va­tion.In the US,which holds patents to be the end-all of in­no­va­tions,this could be a shot in the arm for a host of com­pa­nies and in­dus­tries that have been seek­ing a halt to the patent­ing mad­ness since it is lead­ing to noth­ing but high-cost lit­i­ga­tion and the stalling of fur­ther in­no­va­tion in spe­cific ar­eas.

Musk ex­plains the wis­dom of ap­ply­ing the open source phi­los­o­phy to the man­u­fac­ture of car­bon-free ve­hi­cles. While Tesla had amassed a huge patent port­fo­lio fear­ing that the big car com­pa­nies would copy its tech­nol­ogy and then use their mas­sive mus­cle to over­whelm Musk’s start-up,things haven’t turned out that way. Hardly any big company is se­ri­ous about mak­ing elec­tric cars or any ve­hi­cles that don’t burn hy­dro­car­bons, he says.

H o p e f u l l y, Tesla’s move will change the land­scape for both the en­vi­ron­ment and patents.


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