In June 2014 the CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, made a surprising announcement, “…in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology…Tesla patents have been removed”. Most experts consider Tesla to be the global leader in the electric vehicle movement so giving away their patents is a very big deal.
As a futurist, I keep an eye on trends which are impacting our lives. The idea of ‘open source’ has been on my watch list for some time. Most of us are familiar with successful practice of open source via software development. Platforms like Firefox, Android and WordPress (which this blog is built upon), are all open source. However, Tesla’s move to release patents to their competitors is a significant move towards open source in the non-software environment. I suspect that it will be the first of many.
The decision to share patents is even more interesting when we consider it alongside another major trend, the increasingly complex world of copyright in the digital age. The information age makes it easier to access information, while at the same time, making it more difficult to copyright protect information. File sharing, music streaming and Wikipedia all exemplify how copyright is getting more difficult to enforce. In fact, some would state that copyright is already functionally dead. If you extend this copyright idea to the domain of patents, we see that Musk’s move may reinforce the concept of the death of copyright.
I do not believe that copyright or patents will die. However, we may have reached a tipping point where the complexity of enforcing copyright can be more difficult and costly than being consistently innovative. In the words of Musk;
”When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them. And maybe they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors. After Zip2, when I realized that receiving a patent really just meant that you bought a lottery ticket to a lawsuit, I avoided them whenever possible.”
In an era where patents and copyright are increasingly difficult to enforce, open source can be a strategic business choice. For Tesla, the stated advantage of this choice was humanitarian – slowing harmful carbon-based emissions. I suspect this choice will also bring Tesla long-term financial benefit (batteries are the most expensive component of electric cars and they plan to build a $5B battery factory. Ergo, more electric cars means more electric batteries). While the motive for open source will be complex, I believe that Tesla’s open source experiment will one day be viewed as a historical landmark in the open source movement.
 Musk, E. (June 12, 2014). All our patents are belong to you. Tesla Motors. Retrieved from http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you