Last Thursday, Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, issued an announcement on the company’s blog with a catchy title: “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.” Commentary in social media and on blogs, as well as in traditional newspapers, jumped to the conclusion that Tesla is abandoning its patents and making them “freely” available to the public for whomever wants to use them. As with all things involving patented innovation these days, the reality of Tesla’s new patent policy does not match the PR spin or the buzz on the Internet.

The reality is that Tesla is not disclaiming its patent rights, despite Musk’s title to his announcement or his invocation in his announcement of the tread-worn cliché today that patents impede innovation. In fact, Tesla’s new policy is an example of Musk exercising patent rights, not abandoning them.

If you’re not puzzled by Tesla’s announcement, you should be. This is because patents are a type of property right that secures the exclusive rights to make, use, or sell an invention for a limited period of time. These rights do not come cheap — inventions cost time, effort, and money to create and companies like Tesla then exploit these property rights in spending even more time, effort and money in converting inventions into viable commercial products and services sold in the marketplace. Thus, if Tesla’s intention is to make its ideas available for public use, why, one may wonder, did it bother to expend the tremendous resources in acquiring the patents in the first place?

The key to understanding this important question lies in a single phrase in Musk’s announcement that almost everyone has failed to notice: “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” (emphasis added)

What does “in good faith” mean in this context? Fortunately, one intrepid reporter at the L.A. Times asked this question, and the answer from Musk makes clear that this new policy is not an abandonment of patent rights in favor of some fuzzy notion of the public domain, but rather it’s an exercise of his company’s patent rights: “Tesla will allow other manufacturers to use its patents in “good faith” – essentially barring those users from filing patent-infringement lawsuits against [Tesla] or trying to produce knockoffs of Tesla’s cars.” In the legalese known to patent lawyers and inventors the world over, this is not an abandonment of Tesla’s patents, this is what is known as a cross license.

In plain English, here’s the deal that Tesla is offering to manufacturers and users of its electrical car technology: in exchange for using Tesla’s patents, the users of Tesla’s patents cannot file patent infringement lawsuits against Tesla if Tesla uses their other patents. In other words, this is a classic deal made between businesses all of the time — you can use my property and I can use your property, and we cannot sue each other. It’s a similar deal to that made between two neighbors who agree to permit each other to cross each other’s backyard. In the context of patented innovation, this agreement is more complicated, but it is in principle the same thing: if automobile manufacturer X decides to use Tesla’s patents, and Tesla begins infringing X’s patents on other technology, then X has agreed through its prior use of Tesla’s patents that it cannot sue Tesla. Thus, each party has licensed the other to make, use and sell their respective patented technologies; in patent law parlance, it’s a “cross license.”

The only thing unique about this cross licensing offer is that Tesla publicly announced it as an open offer for anyone willing to accept it. This is not a patent “free for all,” and it certainly is not tantamount to Tesla “taking down the patent wall.” These are catchy sound bites, but they in fact obfuscate the clear business-minded nature of this commercial decision.

For anyone perhaps still doubting what is happening here, the same L.A Times story further confirms that Tesla is not abandoning the patent system. As stated to the reporter: “Tesla will continue to seek patents for its new technology to prevent others from poaching its advancements.” So much for the much ballyhooed pronouncements last week of how Tesla’s new patent (licensing) policy “reminds us of the urgent need for patent reform”! Musk clearly believes that the patent system is working just great for the new technological innovation his engineers are creating at Tesla right now.

For those working in the innovation industries, Tesla’s decision to cross license its old patents makes sense. Tesla Motors has already extracted much of the value from these old patents: Musk was able to secure venture capital funding for his startup company and he was able to secure for Tesla a dominant position in the electrical car market through his exclusive use of this patented innovation. (Venture capitalists consistently rely on patents in making investment decisions, and for anyone who doubts this need to watch only a few episodes of Shark Tank.) Now that everyone associates radical, cutting-edge innovation with Tesla, Musk can shift in his strategic use of his company’s assets, including his intellectual property rights, such as relying more heavily on the goodwill associated with the Tesla trademark. This is clear, for instance, from the statement to the LA Times that companies or individuals agreeing to the “good faith” terms of Tesla’s license agree not to make “knockoffs of Tesla’s cars.”

There are other equally important commercial reasons for Tesla adopting its new cross-licensing policy, but the point has been made. Tesla’s new cross-licensing policy for its old patents is not Musk embracing “the open source philosophy” (as he asserts in his announcement). This may make good PR given the overheated rhetoric today about the so-called “broken patent system,” but it’s time people recognize the difference between PR and a reasonable business decision that reflects a company that has used (old) patents to acquire a dominant market position and is now changing its business model given these successful developments.

At a minimum, people should recognize that Tesla is not declaring that it will not bring patent infringement lawsuits, but only that it will not sue people with whom it has licensed its patented innovation. This is not, contrary to one law professor’s statement, a company “refrain[ing] from exercising their patent rights to the fullest extent of the law.” In licensing its patented technology, Tesla is in fact exercising its patent rights to the fullest extent of the law, and that is exactly what the patent system promotes in the myriad business models and innovative

First posted to the CPIP Blog on June 17, 2014. Made available by Truth on The Market.