The last few years have seen many examples of patents hindering, rather than helping innovation. Patent trolls run rampage while some big companies spend more money on patent wars than research and development. This is why it is so encouraging when companies commit to openness, ensuring their patents do not obstruct future innovation.
Today Tesla Motors announced it is opening up its patent portfolio. Founder Elon Musk wrote that the company "will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use [Tesla's] technology." While the precise details of this pledge aren't clear yet, it is great to see a high-profile company embrace an open approach.
Tesla has reinvigorated the excitement around electric cars, yet they understand that patents are often antithetical to truly kicking off a sustainable movement (and a movement of sustainability). “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles,” Musk writes, “but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal." Patents from first movers may secure a competitive advantage; however, if your company's success and mission rely on widespread adoption, patents hinder more than they help.
Tesla is not the only company to realize this. We recently published a guide to alternative patent licensing discussing how various companies, most notably Twitter with their Innovator's Patent Agreement, have taken tangible steps to ensure their patents are not used offensively. We would love to see Tesla commit their patents explicitly under an agreement like the Defensive Patent License, which sets a clear standard that patents are to be both shared and used for good.
The system built to promote the progress of science hasn't been doing much of that recently. As recognized by Musk, in perhaps the most important point in Tesla’s statement: "Maybe [patents] 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."
Musk's observation is corroborated by a study released today by MIT's Catherine Tucker on "The Effect of Patent Litigation and Patent Assertion Entities on Entrepreneurial Activity" [PDF]. In short, the paper finds that investment and entrepreneurship would have been higher if not for the hostile environment created by "frequent patent litigators," such as patent trolls.
We are encouraged by Tesla’s announcement, and hope other companies—large and small—follow suit.