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Tesla Motors announcement draws attention to patent debate

California’s own Tesla Motors made headlines across the nation recently when it announced its decision to “open source” its patented technology in an effort to make electric cars more widely available within a shorter time frame. The company promised not to initiate patent lawsuits against others who used their designs in good faith.

The federal government provides patents to inventors as a way to protect their inventions from being copied for a set period of time. The theory behind the U.S. patent system is to provide an incentive for people to create useful technologies by temporarily giving them the exclusive right to use their designs. 

Patents give inventors a chance to recoup their up-front investments and profit from their work before they can be undersold by competitors. Without that protection, inventors may be unwilling to take on the cost of research and development on a new idea, knowing that someone else could copy their work and undercut the profits. Once the patent expires, other inventors are free to use the invention as they wish, and in fact are encouraged to do so.

However, not everyone agrees that patents are the right way to encourage growth and innovation in society. Some argue that patents slow the development of new technologies by delaying the opportunity for people to build on one another’s ideas. However, without patents, it is difficult to know what technologies may or may not have been developed in the first place.

In the case of the Tesla patent, the company essentially accelerated the normal patent timeframe to give others access to their invention sooner than it otherwise would have been available. Whether or not the move will pay off, for Tesla or for society as a whole, remains to be seen.

Source: The Washington Post, "Tesla reminds us of the urgent need for patent reform," Larry Downes, June 16, 2014

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