The best system of patent law gives inventors the flexibility to pursue a range of goals while protecting the public. The recent open-source patent move by Tesla Motors is a case in point.
In a move befitting a company named after an inventor who lost a patent war, Tesla Motors has opened its patent portfolio for any good-faith use. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, explains his reasoning in a way that suggests that patents can curtail innovation: “Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.”
Are patents landmines on the path of progress? One way to approach to this question is through economics. Our society has long believed that property rights are key to innovation, prosperity, and even peace. It is axiomatic for any serious economic discussion that rational agents are motivated by a desire to secure a greater share of a scarce resource (such as wealth). There can be other motivations; many inventors see patents as a valuable reward, encouraging invention. Not all inventors share this perspective. Elon Musk is among those who invent not for the reward of a patent, but for the value of pioneering a new field of technology. He isn’t rejecting capitalism or basic economic assumptions. He is reacting to a lack of movement in a particular sector that obstructs his goals.
Musk said that he opened his patents, “in the spirit of the open source movement.” When I read about an engineer who wanted his engine available for others to use, I naturally thought of John Carmack. Carmack became famous as a programmer for his work on video game engines. Like many other programmers influenced by ideas of open access and communal technology development, found in treatises like the “Hacker Manifesto,” Carmack wanted others to be able to build on his work and advance the technology. The open source approach worked out for the company he co-founded, idSoftware: in 1993, they gave away the first one-third of their latest game for free, and (despite widespread piracy of the entire game) sales were still good enough for Carmack to buy a Ferrari and idSoftware grew into a major game development studio.
Carmack’s engines did not need a strong degree of protection to be innovative and profitable. Time will tell whether Tesla’s engines will bring as much success. Of course, opening invention to the public is not an idea of the computer age. Perhaps the most famous case of an inventor foregoing IP protection is the development of a polio vaccination by Dr. Jonas Salk. The “open source” approach can be found in any field, in any era.
Will Tesla still be able to attract brilliant engineers? Can a company turn a profit with an open-patent-portfolio business model? I think so. Moreover, Tesla’s goal is not to generate billions for Musk’s personal enjoyment. Their goal is to “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport.” That certainly requires a healthy and innovative company, but Musk is right to be clear about his real goals. Whether the goal is fighting disease, making better video games, or promoting environmentally-friendly transportation, sometimes innovation is aimed at something besides obscene hoards of money. Intellectual property laws should support, not constrict, such a wide range of interests.