Last month electrical car company Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk announced to share his company’s patents with the rest of the world. Musk will therefore “not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” Musk has a good reason for this; “Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. (…) [When we] lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.”
Elon Musk believes that patents serve merely to stifle progress
Statute of Anne
In Tesla’s press release, Musk continues to explain that at his first company, Zip2, he worked hard to obtain patents, because he believed they were a good thing. But today Elon Musk believes that patents “serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.”
It is ironic that Intellectual Property laws were indeed once invented as a good thing. As I describe in my book, the very first law to protect a creator’s intellect was the Statute of Anne, a British copyright law enacted in 1710. It granted a copyright that lasted 14 years and was called an act “for the encouragement of learning.” Thanks to this law authors didn’t have to be afraid to publish their writings, since it remained their property after publication, not a public good. Which practically meant that people could use the knowledge, but not exploit the written work as if it was theirs.
The vault is protected from earthquakes, floods and nuclear missiles and serves as a backup of our biological diversity
The Global Seed Vault
Musk’s bold decision and today’s misuse of IP laws reminded me of a documentary made by the Dutch TV program Tegenlicht (‘Backlight’), titled ‘The Fight For Seed.’ The documentary revolves around Cary Fowler, an agriculturist who has built a ‘Global Seed Vault’, deep under the arctic ice of Spitsbergen. The vault is protected from earthquakes, floods and nuclear missiles and serves as a backup of our biological diversity, which is why it’s also dubbed the ‘Doomsday Vault.’ Biodiversity is essential for our survival because, apart from global disasters, uniform crops are vulnerable to mutated predators, such as funguses and insects. It is thus essential for crops to be able to constantly adapt to a changing environment. And people can actually help these crops to diversify by cross pollinating them.
The documentary also shows that the decrease of biodiversity is largely caused by big multinationals such as Monzano who wield their patents in such a way that they inhibit the cross pollination of crops – exactly as Musk describes. This not just means that the right to produce food is slowly shifting from the people to the industry, it also stops farmers from adapting their crops to changing local environments.
There is a solution for the unification and vulnerability of our crops; the introduction of a so-called ‘soft patent’
There is a solution for the unification and vulnerability of our crops; the introduction of a so-called ‘soft patents.’ The Netherlands already has such a soft patent law; the Kwekerswet. This ‘Breeders Law,’ rules that seeds belong to the public and that everyone has the right to use patented seeds to breed and further develop their crops. However, you are not allowed to exploit these seeds, exactly as they are, which is very similar to the idea behind our very first copyright law and similar to what Musk formulates as ‘to use in good faith.’ Thanks to this soft patent law for breeders the Netherlands has become one of the biggest seed breeders and vegetable seed exporters in the world.
Since not everyone is as visionary and idealistic as Elon Musk, it would help if governments enact soft patent laws, in order to allow the use of existing knowledge for innovation, in good faith. Maybe not in every industry (yet), but at least in industries that aim to innovate our world in a more sustainable one.
Photo credit: forbes.com.