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Elon Musk acts to promote open-source electric-car development

Throughout the US media, journalists hail a new intellectual-property policy at Tesla Motors.

Elon Musk—the physics-educated business magnate associated with high-visibility enterprises in internet commerce, space exploration and electric cars from his company Tesla Motors—figured prominently in a recent news cycle. Especially in the US media, headlines have proliferated like this one from the business site “Tesla makes its technology available to everyone, for free, in bold move for the planet.”

The opening paragraphs from an article at the Los Angeles Times summarize the news:

The Tesla Model S just became the world’s first open-source car.

Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors Inc., said Thursday that he was 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.”

The dramatic move ... is intended to help speed the adoption of electric cars. Many of the patents relate to electric powertrains and how to integrate them into vehicles, Musk said.

The patents should provide modest help to other automakers without hurting Tesla, he said.

Investor’s Business Daily notes that at the end of 2013, Tesla said it had 203 patents and 280 pending. Musk referred to them in his 12 June blog posting, which started the headline proliferation:

Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.

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.

Later in that posting, Musk offered this rationale:

Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis. By the same token, it means the market is enormous. Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.

Concerning that rationale, the Los Angeles Times quoted Jacob Sherkow, identified as a patent law expert at the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School: “Even if other competitors copy Tesla’s design, Tesla still gets to sell them batteries, and that’s pretty awesome. Tesla’s decision isn’t entirely altruistic.”

That news report joined others in recalling precedents for Musk’s move:

In 1959, engineer Nils Bohlin invented the so-called V-type three-point safety belt that has since become a standard feature in cars worldwide, replacing problematic predecessors such as the diagonal two-point belt.

His company, Swedish automaker Volvo, patented the design and immediately made it freely available to rivals.

The Wall Street Journal similarly observed:

The auto industry has had its share of epic intellectual property fights, including a battle in the industry’s earliest years over who held patent rights to the idea of the automobile. During the 1970s, General Motors Co. shared its breakthrough in developing the catalytic converter, which scrubs smog-forming pollutants out of exhaust.

Bloomberg Businessweek noted a precedent too:

Sun Microsystems (ORCL) once made a similar intellectual-property move in the computer world. Famed for its pricey, proprietary software, Sun opted to open-source all its products. The decision came when Sun had fallen on hard times and was looking to gin up interest in its gear to revive the company.

Tesla is in quite a different situation. Its share price has been on a tear for a year as sales of the Model S soared. That car—just the second made by Tesla—has already earned just about every automotive award imaginable, along with top safety and customer-service ratings. Next year, Tesla plans to begin shipping the Model X, a sports-utility vehicle.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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