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Why Elon Musk Might Open Up Tesla's Patents

Entrepreneur Elon Musk said Tesla may do something controversial with its patents to speed up electric car adoption in the U.S.
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In a fraught environment where small businesses owners are extremely guarded about their intellectual property--in particular their patents--wizard inventor Elon Musk caused quite a stir on Tuesday at the electric car company's shareholder meeting in Mountain View, California.

In response to a shareholder question about what could be done to speed up the glacial pace of adoption of electric car production by other car companies, Musk said he was "playing with doing something fairly significant on this front which would be kind of controversial with respect to Tesla's patents."

Musk did not elaborate, saying that he would probably wait to say something more specific in writing at an unspecified time, though perhaps on the Tesla Blog, to which he contributes on a fairly regular basis.

The statement may strike some startups as a bombshell, considering the amount of trouble patent trolls have given small business owners in the past few years. Patent trolls buy up old or soon-to-be-expired patents, and then often sue small business owners for infringement, hoping for a quick cash settlement.

Among the problems for electric car adoption, Musk noted that other U.S. car companies have only a sporadic commitment to electric vehicles. That makes it difficult, for example, to set up intelligent expense sharing programs for Tesla's expanding network of charging stations. Another problem: Tesla's cars can power up at a much higher voltage than electric cars from competing car companies, and its charging stations are geared to that higher capacity.

According to some estimates, Tesla has 250 patents for its most recent Model S.

Musk says 100 million new automobiles are produced every year, and an unnoticeable fraction of those are electric. There's also an existing fleet of more than 2 billion cars today. Even if every auto maker produced only electric cars today, it would take 20 years to replace all non-electric cars.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Tesla
Last updated: Jun 4, 2014

JEREMY QUITTNER | Staff Writer | Staff Writer, Inc. and Inc.com

Jeremy Quittner is a staff writer for Inc. magazine and Inc.com. He previously covered technology for American Banker and entrepreneurship for BusinessWeek.




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