Musk says Tesla's patents are open to all automakers

Musk: "We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform."
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LOS ANGELES -- Tesla Motors has released its legal right to defend its electric vehicle patents "against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology."

CEO Elon Musk outlined the company's plan to grant open-source access to Tesla’s intellectual property in a blog.

"f 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," he wrote.

Musk, in a conference call, said “several hundred patents, at some time several thousand patents” for Tesla vehicles and supercharging technology will be “open source.”

He noted, however, that Tesla’s battery packs, co-developed with Panasonic, may not be subject to the new policy.

"We’re not speaking on their behalf. Panasonic would retain all of their patents. This just applies to Tesla patents. Anything joint with Panasonic would need their sign-off,"Musk said.

Tesla will continue to apply for patents as it develops new technology, then making them open source as well, Musk added.

"In case other companies file patents as blocking maneuvers, we need to file patents before they do," Musk said. "Other manufacturers will pursue [electric vehicles] if the road ahead is clear, than if it is paved with land mines."

Musk pointed out that his other high-tech company, rocket maker SpaceX, has “virtually no patents and yet our competitive position is unaffected.”

That may be because the rocket business -- much like the car business -- requires huge sums of capital to operate and expand.

“This is a modestly helpful thing that doesn’t harm Tesla but helps the industry,” Musk said.

About the only time Tesla might file legal action would be if a competitor was attempting “to trick someone into thinking it’s our car when its not. This just applies to common sense and fairness,” Musk said.

But Musk says the reason for open sourcing Tesla’s technology has a more altruistic purpose.

“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.”

Musk hopes to change that with today's decision.

“I don’t think people appreciate what’s going on, and how much inertia the climate has. It would be short sighted for Tesla to hold these things close to our vest," Musk said. "We can’t do it all. We’re too small. As we get bigger, we can help other companies.”

Musk said he met with BMW executives on Wednesday to discuss potential collaborations, including the use of Tesla’s high-speed charging system.

“It’s a great area for commonality among manufacturers, I’d be more than happy for them to use our supercharger network,” Musk said, adding that the only constraint is that a patent-sharing charger “has to be able to charge at 135-kilowatt level.”

According to Musk’s blog, patents “serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.”

However, during Tesla’s startup phase, “We felt compelled to create patents out of concern that the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive manufacturing, sales and marketing power to overwhelm Tesla. We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

The lack of market acceptance for EVs has kept manufacturers from investing more heavily in the vehicles, Musk contends.

However, several automakers -- including Toyota, Honda and Hyundai -- have walked away from battery-electric vehicles in favor of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, citing EVs’ lack of range and the cost and weight of the battery packs.

Musk disagreed and added that fuel cells aren’t being used to power satellites or billions of cell phones.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com. -- Follow Mark on Twitter

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