Elon Musk says he's going to relax patent protection at Tesla Motors, throwing out the protect-the-patents culture that prevails at auto companies around the world. The change in policy has its limits — you still won't be able to clone a Model S, for instance. And the company will still apply for new patents; it just won't enforce many of them.

But it’s not a new position for him. In 2012, he pointed out that his other company, SpaceX, faces its primary long-term competition from China. And as a result, “We have essentially no patents in SpaceX. If we published patents, it would be farcical, because the Chinese would just use them as a recipe book.”

The Tesla move is a bit different. It’s not the Chinese Musk is worried about, it’s other automakers. And not what they’ve done, but what they haven’t done. “At best, the large automakers are producing electric cars with limited range in limited volume,” he said in a blog post. “Some produce no zero-emission cars at all.” And with annual auto production approaching 100 million globally, the few plug-in cars — and their climate gains — are being swamped by the continuing flood of gas-powered vehicles.

It’s about the planet’s imperatives, and all those tailpipes. Musk said in a conference call, “I don’t think people appreciate what’s going on, and how much inertia the climate has. It would be short-sighted for Tesla to hold these things close to our vest. We can’t do it all; we’re too small. As we get bigger, we can help other companies.”

Tesla Motors battery pack

A Tesla Motors battery pack: Go ahead, look inside. (Photo: Eric Rosendahl/flickr)

One of those companies is BMW, and Tesla is reportedly in talks with the German company about sharing its Supercharger network. Musk said he’d be thrilled if that happens, even if no royalties change hands.

Musk’s challenge to his engineers is to keep ahead of the competition without a legal crutch. Musk said, "If a company is relying on patents, it's in a weak position. They're not innovating fast enough. You want to be innovating so fast that you invalidate your prior patents."

The Los Angeles Times points out that Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt for Volvo in 1959. The automaker patented the safer design “and immediately made it freely available to rivals.”

Not that they used it. My 1967 Volvo 122S has those belts, but virtually no American company was using them at the time, even eight years after the patent-free invention was offered. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen this time. I’d like to see Tesla-type 85-kilowatt-hour, 300-mile-range cylindrical battery packs in every EV on the road. Not only would it reduce the cell cost for everybody, but it would significantly enhance the appeal of electric cars in our gasoline-dominated marketplace. And that’s precisely Elon Musk’s aim in going patent-free at Tesla. 

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