Why Tesla Gave Up on Patents

Tesla CEO Elon Musk waves during a rally at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk waves during a rally at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. Paul Sakuma/AP File Photo

Elon Musk's decision is both altruistic and smart business.

Elon Musk surprised many Thursday when he declared in a blog post on Tesla's website that the company planned to renounce enforcing its patents and open up the technology behind the company's trademark electric cars.

Not all of Tesla's patents will be made public, but several hundred will, and “ultimately thousands,” according to Musk, who discussed the new company policy in a conference call with shareholders and the press.

“Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters,” Musk wrote in a statement. “That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.”

Tesla had a purely materialistic drive in developing patents for its cars, Musk notes, recalling his first venture, Zip2, and how he “thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them.”

But now, he questions the societal benefit of patents.

“I don’t really like patents, it’s not my favorite thing,” Musk said on the conference call. “I think there is a lot of abuse of the patent system these days. It’s rare to read that some individual inventor [created] technology benefitting [society]. That’s not what you usually read about. I can’t remember the last time I read about something like that.”

This made me wonder: Are there other patent-less inventors who created for the greater good? How rare is Musk’s suggestion that most inventions are for profit?

Rare, but not as rare as Musk implied. A little digging around shows that every so often, inventors willingly turn away from the cash flow guaranteed by a patented product’s demand.

There’s John Walker, who invented the humble match. Walker, a chemist, adamantly refused to patent his creation in the 1820s, believing it to be important for mankind.

Then there's India's "Menstrual Man," Arunachalam Muruganantham, whose wife's inability to afford sanitary napkins inspired him to test a low-cost, hand-operated machine that produces a cheaper alternative to the soiled rag the inventor's wife was using. "I could have sold this machine for a few million [rupees] and earned money," Muruganantham has said of his plan not to pursue a commercial patent. "But I thought the sanitary towel machine I invented can help poor families have a livelihood. So I decided to give it to women as poor as my mother."

Perhaps the most famous patent-shunning inventor of all time? Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, didn’t want a penny for the Internet he built at CERN. Not doing so, argue many, made for a more open, democratic web presence that would have fundamentally been impossible without Berners-Lee's insistence that the web be free for all.

The example of Berners-Lee hints at why Musk would open his company's secret technology to the world.

Musk faces a catch-22 similar to what Berners-Lee faced in the early days of the Internet: For the web to become the invaluable resource that it is today, it needed mass usership. Similarly, electric vehicles are hampered today because there aren't a critical mass of users, meaning states and businesses have little incentive to develop the infrastructure (i.e. widespread electric-vehicle charging stations) that EVs require.

Musk recognizes that patents hold back competition, which in turn slow down innovation, to society's detriment. "Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day," he said.

But of course more electric vehicles doesn't just mean fewer gasoline cars. It also, in the long run, means more charging stations which, hopefully in turn means more electric vehicles.

So is Musk's decision for Tesla's benefit or for society's? Both. Musk knows a little healthy competition means less polluted air, stalling the grim effects of global warming, and healthier lifestyles. If it takes getting rid of patents, so be it.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.