The Tesla just became the world’s first open-source car.
Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors, said Thursday he is opening up the electric-car company’s patents to all comers.
“Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor,” Musk said, “but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open-source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.”
Although it is dramatic — auto companies and other businesses usually jealously protect their patents — Musk said Tesla’s move will be of modest help to rival car companies and should speed the adoption of electric cars.
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“We have a bunch of patents relating to electric-powertrain technology and how it integrates into the rest of the vehicle. I think that will be generally helpful,” he said.
Tesla will also open up the technology it is using to build its supercharger network, a chain of charging stations that rapidly recharge its cars, that the automaker is building across the country. Musk said he has already talked to BMW about sharing the network.
Overall, patents are not as important as doing innovative engineering works quickly, so that you “invalidate your prior patent,” he said.
Musk said that electric cars are such a tiny slice of the auto market, and other automakers are doing so little with them, that he doesn’t see allowing others use of Tesla’s technology hurting the Palo Alto, Calif., electric-car company.
“We think the market is plenty big enough for everyone,” Musk said. “If we can do things that don’t hurt us and help the U.S. industry, we should do that.”
“Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced,” he said, “but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”
Musk, who is also chief executive of rocket builder SpaceX, noted that the aerospace company has “virtually no patents” yet its competitiveness in the rocket business is unaffected.
Tesla will allow others to use its patents in “good faith.” Musk said that means that if another manufacturer is using Tesla’s patent, it can’t file lawsuits against the electric-car company for patent infringement.
Moreover, “We would not want someone to mimic our car in such a way to deceive customers into whether it is a Tesla,” Musk said, adding he is just “looking for common sense and fairness.”
Musk said there were two prime motivations for the move.
Opening up Tesla’s technology could increase sales of electric cars and move the world away from oil-burning vehicles that contribute to global warming.
“I don’t think people quite appreciate the gravity of what is going on. We need to do something. We would be shortsighted at Tesla if we kept these things close to our vest,” Musk said.
He also believes patents are too often used to stifle innovation and as an excuse to file lawsuits. He said the patent system needs reform.
Tesla will continue to seek patents for its new technology so as to prevent others from poaching on its advancements, then filing their own patents as a “blocking maneuver.”
But Tesla’s future patents will also be open to others willing to follow Musk’s “good-faith” guidelines.
At the start of this year, Tesla had been issued 203 patents covering its batteries and other key features that distinguish its electric cars from gasoline-powered vehicles.
An additional 280 patent applications are still pending in the U.S. and other countries, according to Tesla’s regulatory filings.
The earliest any of Tesla’s current patents expires is in 2026, so the company is relinquishing a potentially valuable long-term advantage by giving away its intellectual property to rivals.
But other companies have shown that technology giveaways can pay off.
Even though it spent millions designing Android, Google made the software available to all comers at no charge. Google was more interested in expanding the market for mobile devices and ensuring its search engine and other digital services supported by advertising would be prominently featured on them.
The strategy has worked out well for Google so far. Android is now on more than 1 billion devices, surpassing Apple’s iOS as the world’s most widely used mobile-operating system.
The open-source movement has long appealed to the egalitarian mindset of technologists, so the patent decision could help recruit talent. Musk named his company for Nikola Tesla, a famous inventor who became so exasperated with the legal system that he finally stopped patenting his ideas.
“Technology leadership is determined by where the best engineers want to work,” Musk said. “Putting in long hours for a corporation is hard. Putting in long hours for a cause is easy.”
Analysts said the announcement has little downside for Tesla and could solidify its leadership in the market.
“By opening its patents, Tesla rightly realizes it’s better to be the best product in a large industry than the only product in a niche one,” Silicon Valley entrepreneur Aaron Levie, the CEO of file-storing company Box Inc., said in a Thursday post on his Twitter account.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.