June 20, 2014
The Tricky Business of Tesla’s Patent “Give-Away”
Posted by Ted Sichelman

Last week, Elon Musk—CEO of Tesla Motors—announced on the company’s blog “All Our Patent Are Belong To You” (apparently an homage to a late 90s, ungrammatical internet meme--thx Brian Gividen for pointing this out). Musk claims to adopt an “open source” policy for Tesla’s patents. He elaborates, “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.”

Musk’s move has been hailed widely in the blogosphere as an act of altruism (e.g., here & here). Most of this sentiment has been fairly unreflective. (However, for a certain-to-be prescient analysis that focuses more on the business implications of Musk’s move, see my colleague Orly Lobel’s comments over at Prawfsblawg and Harvard Business Review blog. While I’m quite sympathetic to most of Orly’s observations, as I explain below, I’m quite skeptical of her view that the move will be “good for faster industry innovation.”)

However, like most patent “give-aways,” legal loopholes usually spoil the party. Specifically, Musk stated that “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology” (emphasis added). Of course, “good faith” is a legal term of art large enough to drive a diesel-spewing, 18-wheeler through, much less a zero-emissions Tesla (and this loophole has been roundly noted by a few observant journalists).

Most importantly, is Musk (or his lawyers) expecting that others that use Tesla’s patented technology also make their patents available to Tesla? In more narrow terms, is the result similar to Twitter’s supposed “give-away” that reserved to Twitter the right to sue a competitor if the competitor sued Twitter? Probably so.

Thus, like Twitter, Tesla’s giveaway appears ultimately to boil down to a generalized offer to cross-license with competitors, including potential entrants. As such, Musk’s “give away” is not terribly radical, because cross-licensing in the high-tech and auto industries is fairly commonplace (veritable “keiretsus” in Scott Kieff’s words).

In this regard, as Michael Schallop, an IP attorney recognized, Tesla “wants to encourage others to develop on a common platform, and to the extent that they’re doing so, Tesla is not going to stop that by using its patents offensively.” Indeed, as I have described elsewhere, forcing smaller competitors and potential entrants to cross-license typically provides the incumbent (here, Tesla) a strong advantage, because the incumbent often controls “complementary assets” that provide competitive advantages aside from IP, like robust sales & marketing channels, access to capital, and the like. So, at worst blush, Tesla’s putative altruism could actually keep small, innovative entrants out of the commercial marketplace by effectively forcing them to license their patents to Tesla.

Furthermore, as others have noted, much of the Tesla patent portfolio does not seem particularly strong, nor does it appear to include much of its fundamental technology (which appears to be kept largely as trade secrets). Like IBM’s giveaways of several years ago, one wonders if Tesla found that giving away its patents would yield more revenue by seeding its technology widely—benefiting not only from potential infrastructure effects, but also from the consulting and joint venture dollars that go along with actually explaining to licensees how to implement the technology (specifically by using Tesla’s trade secrets and know-how, which Musk is not divulging). So perhaps Tesla is “patent washing” to offer the proverbial “Trojan horse” (sorry, last cliché) to the larger auto manufacturers (and even lure gullible “anti-patent” engineers to Tesla—see Orly Lobel’s points on these issues).

Or maybe Musk truly thinks he’s being altruistic. Unfortunately, contrary to Musk’s proclamation, “giving away” patents (even putting aside the “good faith” loophole) usually doesn’t mean “open source.” The reality is that Musk’s act is likely to redound much more to his self-interest than society’s.

If Musk were truly concerned about society being able to use Telsa’s technology, he’d specifically agree to the following terms: a royalty-free license to all Tesla current and future patents to any comer in writing with the single exception of maintaining an enforcement right against incumbents or large entrants (but not startups or small entrants) who sue Tesla for infringement. Additionally, Tesla would disclose all of its trade secrets under similar terms and use vigorous efforts codify Tesla’s know-how in so doing.

Of course, Tesla’s “give-away” is quite a ways from this much more thoroughly “open source” approach. As such, I’m not particularly optimistic that Tesla’s current policy will ultimately promote faster innovation or the more rapid adoption of electric vehicles. Perhaps even more unfortunate is the general inability of the press even to spot these issues, much less analyze their ramifications.

Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Intellectual Property, Social Responsibility | Bookmark

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