18 June 2014

Bravo to Elon Musk, patent-buster

Inventor/entrepreneur/engineer/investor Elon Musk recently announced he was giving away all the patents on Tesla Motor's electric car technology, allowing anyone, competitors included, to use them. Musk, CEO and product architect for the company (for which he receives a salary of a dollar a year), made the announcement last week, commenting, "We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform."

Nissan and BMW have already suggested they might take advantage. Other companies, such as Apple, Google and Samsung may also want to take notice. Sharing knowledge could be far more productive than the immensely expensive patent wars they have found themselves in lately.

Patents have always been thought to serve the public by stimulating innovation. But that idea is coming under fire. According to Musk, "There's far too much effort and energy put into creating patents that do not end up fostering innovation."

Open source knowledge, such as Linus Torvald's Linux operating system for example, allows everyone to experiment, to modify, to make cheaper, better and more accessible. Patents, by locking up knowledge, can inhibit innovation, often doing little more than help entrench monopoly in large corporations. Yet even corporations can benefit from open source. Rather than having to pay for all the research on a product themselves and limiting themselves to the ideas of their own people, they can take advantage of the creativity of many minds.

Quite aside from economic advantage, making knowledge available to everyone seems both more altruistic and more democratic, particularly in a shrinking world.

And, oh, incidentally, following the announcement, Tesla shares soared to an all-time high, making Mr. Musk half a billion dollars richer. Sometimes virtue pays.

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