- - Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tesla Motors embodies the best and the smartest of business. The Silicon Valley-based automaker produces electric cars with price tags that reach into the six figures. They’re beloved of Hollywood celebrities who get a bargain in a status symbol, thanks to the generosity of taxpayers who have poured nearly a billion dollars into the company through loans, environmental credits and subsidies.

Last week, however, Tesla decided to show a little generosity of its own by opening its patents for all to use, free of charge. Why would Tesla, a company struggling to sell 20,000 cars a year, choose to throw away legal protections for its inventions?

There’s a reason for thrift. Technology companies sometimes employ more lawyers than engineers, and effort and energy goes for legal wrangling over whether one smartphone looks too much like another one than actually designing the next big thing. Giving up the exclusive use of intellectual property in such an atmosphere only seems crazy.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is perfectly sane. The billionaire co-founder of PayPal says sharing the expertise and experience of his team of engineers with the rest of the world will strengthen his company. He might be right.

Mr. Musk says locking ideas behind walls of patents and legions of lawyers is the wrong approach. “Too often these days,” writes Mr. Musk on the Tesla blog, “they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.”

Ditching patents is making a long-term bet. Electric vehicles make up only about 1 percent of total automotive sales in the United States. Before more people buy a plug-in, there must be a nationwide infrastructure enabling owners to plug in extension cords to get the juice to fuel their cars. If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler use his technology to build less expensive, mass-market electric cars, more plug-in stations will be built. That’s good for Tesla and its bottom line.

America must overhaul its patent system, especially in light of emerging technologies like 3-D printing. In the not so distant future Americans will be able to manufacture just about any three-dimensional object in a matter of minutes, at minimal cost, in their garage. Need a cup? Download the plans and hit the print button. Are the kids bored with their toys? Find new designs and print them. Mr. Musk used a 3-D printer to build a rocket engine.

The possibilities are as endless as the potential for legal battles. Mr. Musk describes the winning of a patent as the equivalent now of buying “a lottery ticket to a lawsuit.” Printing out a set of children’s blocks or a superhero action figure is an invitation to copyright lawyers to go into homes and argue over who owns what design.

Elon Musk, for one, has rejected this vision in favor of innovation and open competition. We should learn from him.

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