Jun 132014

Imagine the car steering wheel had been patented at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and that it was only top end vehicles or French cars that were steered that way?

That’s the situation we’re currently facing in the tech world as almost every conceivable idea, however silly, has a patent slapped on it in the hope it can help the business either defensively or as a revenue generator.

Yesterday’s announcement by Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk that the electric car company would be opening it’s patents for ‘in good faith’ uses is a welcome change.

For Tesla it encourages the growth of the electric car industry making the sector deeper and more attractive to consumers who are tightly suspicious about being locked into proprietary technologies.

It’s interesting too that the motivation for taking up so many patents was to prevent the established motor companies grabbing Tesla’s inventions. As it turns out, that wasn’t necessary.

At Tesla, however, we felt compelled to create patents out of concern that the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive manufacturing, sales and marketing power to overwhelm Tesla. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The unfortunate reality is the opposite: electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales.

So opening up the patent portfolio means Tesla might see more companies enter the space which in turn may create economies of scale.

No end to the patent wars

Although Tesla’s move doesn’t mean all patents wars are over; Musk’s statement that technologies used in ‘good faith’ will be immune from legal action leaves plenty of potential for disputes.

There’s also the problem of cross-licenses with many of Tesla’s invention being subject to agreements with other companies, not to mention technologies bought in from outside.

As Sun Microsystems showed during a previous round of the patent wars, it’s still possible for innocent users to be sued in the event of a dispute.

IBM and open patents

In the wake of that debacle, which fatally damaged Sun’s reputation, IBM made 500 of their patents available to the open source community in 2005 showing Musk’s move isn’t the first time this has happened.

History will tell us if Musk’s announcement helps build the electric car market, if it does it may be an indicator for the future of patents.

  6 Responses to “Tesla and the open patents”

  1. I reckon Tesla’s initial stance on patents (protection against major car manufacturers ‘stealing’ Tesla’s innovations) was sensible, and now that Tesla has established itself, it no longer needs that strong protection.
    This could very well be what the patent-law needs in the modern age of rapid innovation: short-lived patents (say 5 years or so) in which time the inventor can establish him/her self after that, “natural” market-forces should take over to allow competition using the innovation as well (and see who can make the most of it for consumers).

    • Yeah Marco, one important discussion we need to have is over the role of intellectual property law; what’s clear is it needs to evolve with society. It’s going to be interesting to we where we go with it.

    • 5 years for a patent would definitely be too short.
      another mythe is that technology develops so fast: well, yes and no:
      fatser than in the past, but within reason;

      more thn 30 years ago I told my colleagues ‘complaining’ abut technology developing so fast, that apparenty the development took place in the weekends, becasu during the week not much happened . . .

      an example?
      telecommuncations transmission technology
      work on 5th generation is taking off!
      But, even today, and going fast, it takes at least 2 – 5 years, to enter new technology in a product;
      but then it takes 10 yeards or more deploy it . . . .
      Chek for your country the ‘roll-out’ of
      – 5th generation (nothing)
      – 4th generation (spots, covering high usage / population density areas, but low geographical coverage
      – 3rd generation (fair geographical coverage, less for 3.5 / HSDPA, etc.)
      – 2nd generation (good geographical coverage, but stiill sill ongoing as incomplete !!!!!)

      So what would that mean for the duration of patents?
      minimum 15 years for ideas / technologies that can be applied ‘immediately’,
      longer for ideas that need time before commercial realisation is possible
      FET patents date from 1920s, the first commercial realisation from the 1960s . . . .

      If there is something that we should reconsider then it it the justification for a patent:
      is it justified to grant a patent on:
      – DNA (as is)?
      – a rectangular screen in an idem box (‘tablet’, where already the name suggest copying the idea from handheld writign tablets)?
      – double click?
      – . . . .

      Cees Lanting

  2. Before adding more to the hype, two points should be considered:
    – has Tesla invented the electric car?
    – what is the value of Tesla patents?

    no, Tesla has not invented the electric car,
    it has tried to build an “electric Ferrari”, with success

    there are others that have a long experience in electric cars, but not the sports cars: e.g. Renault, Peugeot-Citroen, . . .
    not to forget the hybrids: Toyota / Lexus . . .

    regarding the patents, in comparison, how many patents from Ferrari does Ford or Volkswagen need to build and sell their cars?

    Is access to Tesla patents what has been “blocking” the electric car market for the last (30!!!) years?

    Is it the case that Tesla starts feeling the weight of “the 1.5%” from Lexus, BMW and others?

    The value of discussions in this link would gain a lot in vale if we would get less hype, less publicity and more common sense . . .

    Cees Lanting.

  3. […] obviando empresas como Apple, existe una sólida cultura de Open Source y Software Libre. En 2005 IBM liberó 500 patentes de software para su utilización con fines de […]

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