Tesla Will 'Open-Source' All Its Patents

Tesla Motors just went "open source," at least in spirit. CEO Elon Musk announced this morning in California that the nascent electric car company will open up all its patents "for the advancement of electric vehicle technology." And he did it with a meme, which is awesome.

Musk made the announcement on the company's blog in a post called "All Our Patent Are Belong To You." He wrote that "intellectual property landmines" could inhibit other companies from putting electric cars on the road, and so they will be applying the "open source philosophy" to their patents.

The main development with this announcement is that Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against companies that want to use its technology "in good faith," Musk said. (It's not clear exactly what "in good faith" means, or how that will be enforced by the company.) As some of you readers pointed out, it's not pure open source so much as it is selective enforcement of their patents.

Musk wrote that initially, Tesla created patents for fear that large automakers would copy their technology and use their resources to overwhelm and overtake them.

The "unfortunate reality," he said, is that large automakers aren't moving quickly enough with electric cars, with those vehicles making up less than 1 percent of their total sales. (He did not name any specific automakers when making this claim.)

"In general, I think patents are a relative weakness for a company," Musk said on a conference call to reporters. "It means they aren't innovating, that they aren't moving fast enough."

The goal is to help move the auto industry toward sustainable transportation, Musk said. He said he doesn't expect much to happen from Tesla's patent decision in the short term, but he hopes in the long term it will tilt car development more in the electric direction.

"People overvalue patents as a competitive element," he said. "I don't see it as some monumentous thing. It's more modestly helpful."

Musk said the decision does, in fact, include the technology behind their supercharger network. The company will apply for patents going forward, he said, but will keep them open source.

It's a very clever move on Musk's part, and one that has the potential to upend the idea behind patents in the auto industry. And if it does spur more electric car production by other automakers, that could help Tesla tremendously. After all, they're gonna need to get their batteries from somewhere. It could also be seen as a move to get Tesla's tech to become the standard for EVs.

Will other automakers do the same? Musk said he asked BMW to do so last night. I wouldn't hold my breath on that.