Musk isn’t entirely an altruist. Tesla makes electric cars, and will only succeed if the entire electric-vehicle industry succeeds. It needs other companies to help build charging stations, to improve batteries, and to change the perception that only rich guys in open-collared dress shirts drive these things. Tesla wins if its patents help Ford improve its batteries, which then leads Ford to make more electric vehicles, which then leads someone else to start a chain of charging stations. If open patents can promote standardization, that would likely mean faster innovation for all. An electric car is made up of thousands of parts; if more companies begin using the same ones, the process of putting cars together becomes simpler.
“Putting in long hours for a corporation is hard,” Musk said on Thursday during a conference call. “Putting in long hours for a cause is easy.” What exactly is that cause? It’s bringing clean cars to the people, of course. But it’s also, it seems now, showing the world a new way to think about innovation.
And that is what’s most provocative about Musk’s decision. In his post yesterday, Musk wrote, “When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them. And maybe they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.”
This isn’t the view of all of Silicon Valley. Apple, for one, is almost as adept at patent litigation as it is at product innovation. But it’s an idea that’s becoming more prominent, and the ideals of open-source collaboration—you build things and you share them freely—are held tightly among young coders. Anyone can license and use the Android operating system. Linux, Apache, Perl, and Mozilla are all considered open-source software, which anyone can contribute to and no one can fully own. Idealistic young lawyers work as public defenders. Idealistic young coders work on Linux. And Musk is hoping that idealistic young automotive engineers will want to work for Tesla.
Musk’s innovation is to share hardware, not software. Code is easy to share: it doesn’t really cost you anything to write it, beyond a computer and a power cord. Sunroofs are harder, since you need glass and other materials for each iteration. Then, since you’re dealing with stuff, innovations and improvement come more slowly. That’s one reason why the ideals of open collaboration have spread much more quickly among coders than among engineers in general. Most people who figure out new sunroofs want to be paid before their competitors can replicate their work.
Musk, though, clearly considers the tradeoff worthwhile. His competitors will surely copy things that will help them; this move probably makes his employees more desirable for competitors who want to poach them. But if Tesla can keep hiring and retaining engineers who are smarter than everyone else’s, imitation won’t really matter. By the time that a competitor has copied the sunroof, the Tesla folks will have built something better.
Musk can do whatever he wants at this point in his life. He’s got three successful companies, and Tesla has won nearly every available automobile-industry award. The man has no shortage of self-confidence. In a post about Musk, which followed up on a Profile, Tad Friend wrote, “Musk, who grew up in South Africa reading Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series, sees himself as a hero tasked with the lonely burden of saving us all. His pet projects (space flight, electric transport) aim to buy us time to colonize Mars before we destroy Earth. There is something reproving about his blue-eyed stare, as if he’s come back after a spell on Gamma Nebula 7 and is disappointed to find us still burning hydrocarbons and chowing down at Cinnabon. Earthlings, repent!”
Photograph by Dario Cantatore/Getty.http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/06/elon-musk-shares-tesla-patents.html