Tesla, Patents, and the Open Source Movement

Posted on June 20, 2014

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You may have heard that Tesla Motors recently released all their patents to the world for free. Here’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s explanation for why he took this somewhat unorthodox move:

“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.”

When it comes to the charging infrastructure, there is a very good reason why Tesla might want to do this. By allowing anybody to build a supercharger station on their own initiative and on their own dime, Tesla is effectively downloading the risk of building their infrastructure onto other people. Given the growing popularity of and excitement around Tesla cars and electric cars more generally, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a significant number of people who saw a local electric car charging station as a good investment. This will help reassure potential buyers that they can count on having charging stations available nearly anywhere, which will in turn help Tesla sell cars.

The decision to release all the patents on the cars themselves is a bit more puzzling. I’m not going to presume to fully understand its reasons or its implications. I’m not a patent lawyer, and while the efficacy of patents is discussed in the academic circles in which I travel, it’s not really my topic of expertise. It will be interesting, however, to see whether this leads to more electric vehicles being built using Tesla technology, to compete with Tesla. Maybe this will open the door for specialized electric vehicles such as buses, delivery vans, or construction vehicles. Maybe a bigger ecosystem of competing electric vehicles will give Tesla an edge by further legitimizing the technology, which Tesla will retain their lead in due to their considerable experience making them. Or maybe they will be awash in cheap knockoffs within 10 years and be driven out of all but the luxury car market. It’s probably a good move for the planet, but as for what it means for Tesla, it’s probably too early for me, or anyone, really, to say.

But one thing that is interesting about this is the language that Musk uses to justify the decision. He is using the anti-intellectual property language which has been developing for some time now in opposition to the software and entertainment industries. Musk is, at least apparently, putting this language into practice in a very big way. In fact his blog post makes explicit reference to the open source movement. Of course, it’s possible that Musk is just paying lip service to the idea of open source, while he is actually releasing his patents for purely business reasons. Political figures like Musk always attempt frame their actions by reference to whatever ideology or symbolism is trendy at any given point in time. 

But even if Musk is merely posturing, there is still something interesting here. The ideology of the open source movement is becoming increasingly important. Virtually anybody who knows how to program a computer and doesn’t stand to make a lot of money from patents will say that it’s a good idea. Google and Mozilla both make liberal use of open source software, and creatives, such as Amanda Palmer and the guys behind Cards Against Humanity all openly encourage the pirating of their work. 

Maybe the recent development at Tesla is a signal that this ideology is starting to effect how the technology business works. If more technology companies follow the example set by Google and Tesla, then it could mean a big change in how technology gets developed. It would fundamentally change the rules by which engineers and entrepreneurs play, the effects of which are probably too complicated for anybody to realistically predict. And that would have some kind of effect on the kinds of technologies that get developed, the speed with which they get developed, and the ease with which they diffuse into society.

If that’s the case, then this is evidence of something that is constantly ignored in discussions of business and technology: ideology matters. Economists and policymakers like to assume that firms and engineers are perfectly rational calculators who follow their business sense and whose behaviour is basically predictable. But who could have predicted the rise of the open source movement? Ultimately, Engineers are people. And so are entrepreneurs. And like all other people, they filter their perceptions about the world through a lens of ideas, assumptions, and principles, and that changes how they act, and has a profound impact on the technologies they develop. That means that technology, like anything else, is susceptible to the influence of culture. Most intriguingly, it means that we can influence technology purely through ideas.

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