Elon Musk is giving up Tesla's patents for free (and no, he's not insane)

It could help reduce carbon emissions, and do so much more for electric cars

Published June 12, 2014 8:29PM (EDT)

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors        (AP/Mark Lennihan)
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors (AP/Mark Lennihan)

In a blog post today, titled "All Our Patent Are Belong To You," Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, announced that the company is opening up its patents so other automakers can use its technology.

"Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters," Musk began. "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," Musk continues. "If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property land mines 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."

Yep, that's right: Tesla, the only company with an EPA-certified 265 miles-per-charge, luxury electric car, is letting others use its technology without fear of a patent-related lawsuit.

The reasoning, according to the blog post, is that patents actually inhibit Tesla's goal of sustainable transportation. Tesla's miscalculation was thinking that big auto companies would use the technology, and create competing electric cars. The problem is, big carmakers aren't making electric or otherwise sustainable cars a big part of production.

Tesla's smaller-scale production and the truly huge market for cars means that Tesla, alone, can't tackle the release of greenhouse gases. "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." (In fact, according to Slate, Tesla is currently helping BMW with superchargers.)

Yes, this will help the environment and is huge in terms of releasing very powerful technology, but this clearly wasn't only an altruistic act of charity. The competition is gasoline cars, and their huge market share -- regular gas-using cars that are cheaper to make and already have the infrastructure to mass produce.

And if Tesla wants electric cars to be mainstream, its technology cannot be niche, production cannot be niche. Sure, you can sell electric cars to the wealthy because it is luxury and exclusive. But its exclusivity is also in part due to how expensive batteries are to manufacture, and the fact that they only make around 20,000 cars per year.

Patents, as Vox points out, can hinder the advancement of an emerging market, as in the case of moviemaking and early airplanes. Opening up the technology helps grow the niche electric car market into a broader one, which could help the environment.

Releasing the technology allows for improvements on the technology, and could potentially lower the cost of producing this technology. Slate points out:

"The more money is put into electric batteries, the cheaper and more powerful they’ll become. The more electric cars there are on the road, the greater will be the demand for regional and national networks of electric charging stations. And guess what company will stand to benefit the most."

Elon Musk is no stranger to big, brilliant ideas, from SpaceX to Tesla and SolarCity, and this one is no exception. It also doesn't hurt that, according to Bloomberg, the battery industry could be worth $200 billion by 2020, and Musk, who already has plans for a gigafactory, and 86 superchargers stationed throughout North America, is certainly ahead of the game.

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Electric Cars Green Energy Innovation Patents Sustainability Technology Tesla