In a move that is at once impressive and baffling to many commentators, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk recently announced that they are applying the open source philosophy to their portfolio of patents. While a great publicity stunt, there seems to be more to it than that. Musk said:
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.
At best, the large automakers are producing electric cars with limited range in limited volume. Some produce no zero emission cars at all.
By open sourcing their patents, they do run the risk of losing market shares. That is, I think, a minor concern – if it is one at all – for the company. I think one of two things will happen: Either no one will use the patents, at which point we are where we were – status quo ante. If the patents are used, Tesla’s burden in building an ecosystem around their technology is being shared by other manufacturers. Either way, by letting anyone use the patents, more smart people can do more smart thing with them, improving the electric car market – for everyone.