It’s not often that companies give out their trade secrets for the benefit of others. Nvidia doesn’t do it for Physx, Intel doesn’t give out the details of the x86 IP to just anyone and Apple will never reveal just how their A-series processors work, or show off the die shots. In all industries related to technology, intellectual property is closely guarded thanks to patents and it’s the main way in which these things are protected.
But when companies take the step to open-source their work to benefit the industry, their competitors and mankind in general, some wonderful things happen. We’ve already seen incredible work in the open-source software industry thanks to Linux Torvald’s forking of the UNIX project into what we know today as Linux and more and more people are shying away from protecting inventions or other creations behind walls which just serve to stifle development. Last month, that same thing happened to Tesla Motors and the electric car industry and the news didn’t exactly catch on in most areas of the internet.
Tesla Motors, for those who don’t know it already, is the brainchild of SA-born entrepeneur Elon Musk. Musk created Paypal and SpaceX, two ventures that went on to revolutionise cross-country payments over the internet as well as privatised space travel and rocketship development (even John Carmack builds them in his spare time). Tesla Motors is, this far, the only surviving electric car manufacturer in the US that has actually succeeded in getting off the ground and shipping cars to customers while making a profit by doing so.
Tesla has so far shipped over 3000 Roadsters, more than 50,000 Model S variants and is expected to launch the Model X in 2015 and unveil the Model E in the same year.
In the spirit of Nikolai Tesla, then, the company opted to give out all of their patents for free, with trademarks, brand names and a few other trade secrets remaining in-house to ensure that they remain competitive in what is soon going to be a free market. Musk says that there are very good reasons for this.
“When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them,” Musk writes in a blog post on Tesla’s website. “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.”
“After Zip2, when I realized that receiving a patent really just meant that you bought a lottery ticket to a lawsuit, I avoided them whenever possible.”
Musk goes on to note that the electric vehicle market would greatly benefit from the development of an open-source, freely modified technology platform which, as a standard, enables anyone to start up their own EV brand and make cars as good, or better, than Tesla’s designs and products.
“Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.”
This is nice reminder to the people inside the software industry that not everything needs to be behind a wall which only serves to protect your interests and profits regardless of the benefits that open-sourcing your work might have to the market.
Then again, Linux and OpenGL have been available to consumers for years and it hasn’t taken off in the desktop space like it has for other markets. We’ll have to wait and see if the open-source approach works as well for the automotive market as it does in the computer industry.