Of Course Tesla Wasn't Just Being Altruistic In Opening Up Its Patents: That's The Whole Point!

from the the-velocity-of-innovation dept

We, like many in the media, already wrote up the story about Elon Musk’s announcement that Tesla was opening up all of Tesla’s patents, promising not to bring any lawsuits against anyone who uses them in good faith. The “good faith” caveat has resulted in some head scratching and reasonable questions — and we hope that Musk clarifies this position with a clearer explanation. Some have pointed out that with such vague language, it may really be more of an invitation to negotiate a licensing deal, rather than truly opening up the patents (though, I’d imagine anyone looking to challenge that has lawyers boning up on promissory estoppel). However, I wanted to address one of the “criticisms” that seemed to come out repeatedly about this move: that it wasn’t a big deal because it’s “not altruistic.” That line was used over and over and over again in the press, almost always suggesting that people shouldn’t be celebrating this move.

  • LA Times: “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.”
  • Seeking Alpha: “The general thinking is that somehow this move is altruistic for the benefit of the EV industry or that this has something to do with parallels like Mac OS X, Wikipedia, and crowdfunding. We disagree. This is simply a strategic move to rapidly expand and monetize the EV market. This move is hard-core strategy and really has nothing to do with altruism.”
  • NASDAQ: Elon Musk and Tesla: Altruistic or Ulterior Motive?
  • Forbes: “Of course, Musk may have an ulterior motive in addition to his altruistic one.”
  • South China Morning Post: “Tesla’s apparent altruism with its patents is just smart business”
  • ValueWalk: “Tesla Motors Inc’s open source approach is far from altruistic.”
  • Harvard Business Review: “In sum, Elon Musk’s opening up of Tesla’s patent portfolio might be motivated as much by strategic necessity rather than by altruism.”
  • Market News Call: “Musk may not be successful running two industrial firms like online social media or cloud-focused firms, but he’s also not making decisions entirely out of altruism; he’s just using a non-traditional approach to creating value for his shareholders.”
  • Engineering.com: “I think he [Nikola Tesla] would approve of Tesla Motors’ decision to open its technology to the world, even if the motivation was more business than altruism.”

I recognize why everyone feels the need to do this — especially those sites that claim to be focused on “investors,” but it’s also somewhat frustrating. Perhaps it’s just because we’ve been writing about this issue for well over a decade, but of course this move is being done because it’s good for business: but that’s the point. We’ve become so stupidly brainwashed into believing that locking up and protecting everything is good for business that people seem positively shocked when a company does something that shows that’s simply not true. Everyone feels the need to explain what a “crazy” idea it is that not hoarding information to yourself might actually be good for business.

And the worst may be in that first link up there, in which analyst giant Gartner completely destroys what little credibility it may have had when one of its analysts, Thilo Koslowski, pans the decision: “If you open up all your books to everyone, it means you all are fighting a war with the same weapons.” Talk about someone admitting their own ignorance of how business and innovation actually works. Opening up your patents hardly means fighting a war with all the same weapons. Everyone still gets to innovate, and many of those innovations are not in the patents themselves.

A further Musk quote in a Business Week piece further outlines what’s happening here:

“You want to be innovating so fast that you invalidate your prior patents, in terms of what really matters. It’s the velocity of innovation that matters.”

This is a point that we’ve been trying to make for years: innovation is an ongoing process, and what matters most is not the single burst of inspiration, but the pace of that process — which Musk more eloquently calls “the velocity of innovation.” Patents on pieces of that ongoing process act as friction or toll booths in that process, slowing it down. Truly innovative companies know that they’re going to keep innovating, and others copying what they’re doing is the least of their worries.

Of course this move is about innovation and business and will be good for Tesla. But it’s depressing that so many people automatically think that needs to be explained. We live in a dangerous world for innovation when a concept as simple as this seems so foreign to so many people. Even the fact that the idea that “doing good” and “building a good business” seem to be contradictory terms is troubling. Whether or not Musk is personally “altruistic” is beyond the point. Increasing the velocity of innovation for electric vehicles can be both good for Tesla and for the world, and that shouldn’t be such a crazy idea.

Oh, and in case you haven’t seen it yet, go check out what Tesla did to the wall where they used to hang their patents:

Because, perhaps even worse than everyone trying to explain why this isn’t “altruistic” are all the people still confused about Musk’s All Our Patents Are Belong To You language…

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Companies: tesla

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Comments on “Of Course Tesla Wasn't Just Being Altruistic In Opening Up Its Patents: That's The Whole Point!”

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Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Um... Duh?

Wait, people didn’t realize this? When I first heard the news I figured it was to get more people into the electric car market so that Tesla had a bigger market to target. Like how Ford didn’t lock down their manufacturing line idea and suddenly the motor vehicle market exploded.

My Dad had been looking into getting a Tesla, but it’s almost impossible to use the thing where I live. There are no charging stations, the car would only be able to be charged at home. But if more electric car manufacturers were around, more charging stations would pop up, making it easier to own a Tesla.

mcinsand (profile) says:

Gartner's credibility?!?!?

>>And the worst may be in that first link up there, in which
>>analyst giant Gartner completely destroys what little
>>credibility it may have had

Gartner is a lot like Flo M?ller; anyone that thinks either has any credibility left simply does not have the mental horsepower for a tech discussion… or even most other discussions, for that matter.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

The “good faith” caveat has resulted in some head scratching and reasonable questions — and we hope that Musk clarifies this position with a clearer explanation.

It seems pretty clear to me. As an engineer, if I did and said something like that, here’s what I would mean by it:

“Go ahead and use this, but play nice. I’m placing a lot of trust in you guys, and if you abuse that trust by doing something stupid, such as using our patents but then turning around and trying to frivolously sue us for patent infringement, keep in mind that I can and will revoke permission. So don’t.”

Michael Hannigan says:

Why altruistic?

I agree with you 100% This is great journalism…. Very rare these days.

It amazes me how many “analysts” judged this move on whether or not it was “altruistic”. Why? Is that what Musk said it was supposed to be? Is there some unwritten law that says business decisions must be, or even should be, altruistic? I really don’t get it. I don’t understand why seemingly intelligent people are so quick to show their ignorance by fighting an argument that doesn’t exist. The point of whether or not this is “altruistic” is entirely arbitrary.

Socrates says:

Re: Re: Re: Why altruistic?

And if one were to design the Hyperloop to be fast, the higher temperature at ground level (relative to 10.000 m up in the air) means that the “sound barrier” is at a higher speed.

In other words, it could be made faster than passenger jets, and do so directly to and from population centers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Musk is provably right.

Same provable fact goes for clothes etc…

Look at Formula 1 and their relentless development cycle of teams eventually copying other teams innovations. The team who has a head start on the tech, has the advantage. Using that advantage is the aim, not abusing the whole system and disallowing anyone to copy your innovation and yourself from copying other innovation.


Whatever says:


What is funny is that either he is (a) altruistic and trying to save the world of (b) using the patent system to make money. There isn’t any other way to slice it.

Musk wants the big car companies to effectively fund his business model by paying to create the infrastructure to support his cars, which his company appears unable to do on a scale that makes it possible for the company to expand past a certain point.

He is using the patents and the patent system to his advantage, as any other business would do. He is perhaps the perfect proof that the patent system works.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Funny

He is using the patents and the patent system to his advantage, as any other business would do. He is perhaps the perfect proof that the patent system works.

If this is what the patent system working looks like, then I agree with you 100%! Unfortunately, we still have Intellectual Ventures, Macrosolve, Personal Audio, Parallel Iron etc who still don’t know how to use the patent system properly. I hope they’re watching!

Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Funny (not)

Misrepresenting the patent system much?

If it worked like this,
1. Tesla wouldn’t need to open up their patents. The system would do it instead of them (and to many other patent holders)
2. Elon Musk’s choice wouldn’t have been greeted with confusion and so much positive surprise. It should be the norm. Which is apparently not.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Funny (not)

  1. It’s the patent holder’s choice. What Musk is offering isn’t licensing at a reasonable fee, but rather free if you help make my stuff the standard and make my company grow.

    2. It’s not the norm to spend a ton of money developing something and then just give it away. That isn’t confusion and surprise you are hearing, it’s the sounds of people pointing at the clear motivation behind his grandiose move. It’s not about the patent system, it’s about trying to avoid his company becoming an afterthought in the electric car world as the big companies move to their own standards and ignore him.

    Basically, he is offering to play ball while he still has a hope of being relevant.

Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Funny (not)

Thanks for your irrelevant answers. (Irrelevant, because you don’t address my point that what Elon Musk did with his patents is not the norm.)

My point was this:
Elon Musk clearly demonstrated how much government monopoly is needed to recuperate R&D costs. 5 years at most. Longer monopoly only hinders innovation.

The current patent system support patents for 20+ years (ridiculous, shitty, overbroad patents at that), which in turn hinders innovation, give big corporations another tool to stiffle competition and trolls a chance to fleece startup companies (hindering innovation further)

So I ask you again: how is the patent system works when the people who want to innovate have to work around it while it is just another tool in the hands of the big players who want to hinder others?

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