On June 12th, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced “he would freely share the company’s technology patents” with other carmakers. “They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology,” Musk said on the Tesla website. It is no secret that Musk is striving for a standardized, nationwide EV-charging infrastructure. Tesla hopes that its open-source technology will spur other carmakers to do the same and develop similar technologies. The idea is that this will further facilitate Tesla vehicles. However, just because Tesla recently made a bunch a patents available for free, it remains too early to make a call on Tesla’s IP complete strategy. The strategy will be developed over time and probably on how well Tesla deals with intensifying competition in the coming years, and the extent to which it can promote its own upscale EV charging technology.
But, there’s other signals to a changing world as well:
- Samsung and Apple just made a patent litigation peace outside the US. They have slowly moved away their laywerish attitude with each other after a number of court cases with the last years US cases as the biggest among the international battles in terms of dollar figures, with Apple winning just over $1 billion in damages in the first trial between the two companies. While the US cases carry more weight in terms of potential dollar amounts, some of the international suits have come substantial. But now this is all over as they have agreed to share their international patents, besides the one in the US.
- Intellectual Venture, IV, the first and largest non practicing entity, NPE, – just announced they are laying of almost 20% of their 700 employees – tuning down their activities, also related to piling patents. Are we seeing the end of patent aggregators and their urge for litigations? It seems like their more willing to share their portfolios now rather than dragging all their patent into court.
- Pharma industry is cooperating more than ever with universities in an open innovation modus and also sharing more patents than ever amongst themselves. We are today seeing more willingness to collaborate, or at least there is now an established culture in pharma where R&D activity pursued by external entities, such as contract research organizations (CROs) and universities activity is frequent. And increasingly there is collaborations, joint ventures, even in some cases technology transfer, and perhaps what is called “crowd sourcing;” where a number of innovators come together to address a problem and solve it through licensing and collaboration activity, but perhaps probably not as much as one would like to see, and certainly not as much as in the software, electronics, and IT industries. The pharma sector needs to spread those costs and risks in an environment where there is limited access to the right kinds of information. There are a number of examples of companies seeking to gather and access the right information on genetic information on specific disease states. For example, the Asian Cancer Research Group founded by Pfizer, Merck, and Eli Lilly as a not-for-profit company seeks to accelerate research on new medicines to treat the most commonly diagnosed cancers in Asia (gastric, lung, and other forms cancer) via the creation of the most extensive pharmacogenomic cancer databases known to date over the next two years. This, I believe, we will se even more of in the near future.
- The mobile industry is developing FRAND collaborations around standards essential patent developments and similar license structures are set up to share IP and patents in a larger extent. However, there are great antitrust interests following and my bets are that we will see even more sharing and open partnerships in this area.
So what is really going on? Has the sharing of IP become trendy – is finally Henry Chesbroughs “Open innovation” here to stay? Does these moves signal a realization among players in the world of intellectual property, knowledge and information that granting legal rights to intellectual property doesn’t make sense? Well…still strategic partnership does not come for free and to have the strategic position to choose I would say that without the patents you’re pretty much done and destroyed. The patents put you in a position to choose. The Freedom to chose and to control your strategies has always been underestimated when it comes to intellectual property.
Elon Musk justifies his move by noting that Tesla is sharing its patents with everyone else, including its current competitors, in order to facilitate a more rapid development of the electric car, which he sees as the main way of transporting people in the future. He envisions a large enough market for all players in the emergent industry, and that the more rapidly this market is developed, the better for everyone – including Tesla. Apple and Samsung realization that their patent fight is a major source of financial worries not only for the CTO, but also for the shareholders, and that they are better off sharing information in order to hasten further the development of the ICT business, is certainly something the consumer and also the market and industry in general will appreciate. However, this is exactly the same strategic mind-set that led IBM to make public a large chunk of its huge inventory of patents in the mid-nineties. IBM, still one of the major players in the field, has always focused on spreading IP in an open innovative mind set, be it patents or other IPR’s.
Apparently, holding one’s cards close to one’s chest does not make strategic sense in today’s knowledge-driven world, but at the end of the day – open or closed – it’s the ROI and share holders that counts anyways. Even for the evangelist Elon Musk.
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