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Tesla embraces open source?

Tesla Model S charging at the Supercharger network station in Delaware.
Tesla Model S charging at the Supercharger network station in Delaware.

Linux. WordPress. Firefox. Android. Tesla?

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is disrupting the establishment – again. The chief executive of Tesla Motors said Thursday that other companies and organizations are free to use and build on Tesla technology patents without fear of being sued.

It’s tough to say what caveats Musk may be attaching to such openness, but the decision could prove a pivotal point in the history of modern electric vehicles.

Writing on the company’s blog, Musk made clear that his decision was in the spirit of the open source movement.

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport,” Musk wrote. “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.”

So to instead further that goal, Musk made an unconventional pledge: “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

Wow. Double wow.

In Musk’s view, aggressive patent protection has only served to stifle progress and “entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession.” He equated the receiving of patents as “a lottery ticket to a lawsuit.”

During its early years Tesla took patent protection seriously out of concern the big carmakers would try to copy its technology and then use their manufacturing, sales and marketing power to crush Tesla. Upon reflection, Musk said it was the wrong approach to take. The reality, he pointed out, is that major automakers are not dedicating enough resources to electric car development and that is hurting us all.

“Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis,” Musk wrote. “By the same token, it means the market is enormous. Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”

The bottom line, he added, is that there’s more than enough market opportunity to go around that Tesla doesn’t need to jealously guard its patents.

“We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position,” he said.

The proof, however, is in the puddin’. What Musk means, exactly, by “in good faith” leaves a lot open to interpretation. Is Tesla really giving up control or is Musk talking about a kind of managed open-source movement – open-source lite?

More clarity will be needed. Big carmakers – more precisely, the lawyers of big car companies – won’t simply take Musk at his word. CK expects Tesla will release more details of its newfound openness over the coming weeks and months.

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