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Elon Musk: Rocketeer and Patent Critic

The most surprising aspect of inventive billionaire Elon Musk’s companies Space X and Tesla may not be NASA-backed rockets, or self-driving cars, but rather, their stance on sharing such technology with the public.

Photo: Fillyourcup, (Courtesy of Google Images)

On February 6, 2018, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy.  This large, cargo-lifting rocket took off with the most powerful boosters of the modern era, following only the Saturn V, which launched the Apollo moon missions.  Fortunately, the Falcon Heavy’s debut flight was a success and met almost all of its initial flight objectives, including safely carrying Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster and its driver, “Starman” into space.

According to SpaceX, several more flights are planned for the rest of 2018 and through 2020, which is when Musk intends to use the experience in developing the Falcon Heavy into an even bigger and more powerful rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket.  Ultimately, Musk is looking to get the Big Falcon to Mars.

The Falcon Heavy initiative was first announced back in 2011, accompanied by Musk’s promise that the rocket would carry 117,000 pounds of cargo into orbit.

SpaceX has come a long way since Musk founded the company back in 2002.  After a string of successful development and promising fights of Falcon 1, NASA took notice of SpaceX and funded the company’s first major endeavor – the Dragon capsule.  The Dragon capsule’s launch was notable not only by its “space” nature; its significance was also bolstered by the fact that it was the first commercial, nongovernment spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.  To get the Dragon into space, it required a heavier-lift rocket, which started the Falcon rocket series.

The Falcon Heavy initiative was first announced back in 2011, accompanied by Musk’s promise that the rocket would carry 117,000 pounds of cargo into orbit.  Inevitably, Musk and SpaceX suffered a few setbacks by rocket failures in 2015 and 2016, one of which was set to carry the Zuma spacecraft—a “classified” matter, according to the Department of Defense.

The February 6 launch date became that much more important.  SpaceX and Musk overcame the setbacks and developed the 230-foot tall rocket, dawned with 27 engines, capable of more than 5 million pounds force of thrust.  Simply put, it had the same force as roughly 19,000 aircrafts.  The launch fulfilled what Musk had promised, and SpaceX is well on its way to the next launch.

Tesla has soared in the auto industry as it continues to develop new features and models while seamlessly capturing the imagination of the public.

The inventive mind behind these projects, Elon Musk, is a multi-talented inventor and investor.  His other company, Tesla, the same maker of the car Musk sent to space, is pioneering transportation and new technology.  Tesla is still considered a young auto manufacturer, but since going public in 2010, around the same time the Dragon capsule was launched, Tesla has soared in the auto industry.  Tesla continues to develop new features and models while seamlessly capturing the imagination of the public.

Tesla now stands as the ideal electric car.  Better yet, the Model 3 was named ‘Coolest Car of 2017’ by Autotrader.  The car accelerates quickly and holds speeds silently.  It can take sharp turns at faster speeds with an interactive and responsive steering system.  The interior is roomy, allowing even six-foot tall persons to sit comfortably in the car.  Because consumers see so much promise in this vehicle’s development, some are placing $1,000 down payments to reserve cars they have never driven, and may not even get to drive for another couple years.

One would think with so much promise and economic potential Elon Musk and Tesla would be doing everything they can to guard the technology and development tools used to further Tesla’s production; however, quite the opposite is happening.  While developers and engineers often focus on quickly patenting their newest invention to insure it is protected and is temporarily their “monopoly,” Tesla surprised the auto industry by overhauling the traditional view on patents.

In 2014, Elon Musk wrote a letter to the public of sorts addressing how he and the company intend to “co-create” moving forward. Musk wrote:

“[T]here was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case.  They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.  Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport.  If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.  Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

In essence, Musk was writing to address his regrets in feeling compelled to patent Tesla’s technology.  Since that letter, Musk and Tesla have continued to operate under the belief that the whole world would benefit from an open-source philosophy.  Under Musk’s ideology, technology leadership is not defined by the number of patents held, but by the number of the world’s most talented engineers working together to create and develop electric cars in a consistently better way.

For now, SpaceX and the details of Falcon Heavy’s inner workings are likely to remain a mystery to the public eye.

The same train of “open sourcing” thought does not apply when Musk discusses protecting SpaceX.  Rather, Musk avoids patents altogether with his space venture.  One may wonder why Musk would forego protecting his intellectual property when he is building complicated and novel-like spaceships.  Musk is not interested in disclosing his newest technology, which would be required if he sought out patents.  “If we published patents, it would be farcical, because [our competitors] would just use them as a recipe book.”

Elon Musk and SpaceX have no intentions to develop or aid any other space program.  However, if this deterrent were not enough, the current flaws and loopholes in patent law should be a second reason to forego that form of protection.  Particularly in the case of international patent law, priority disputes and disclosure requirements differ at nearly every border.

For now, SpaceX and the details of Falcon Heavy’s inner workings are likely to remain a mystery to the public eye.  Musk would rather encourage innovators to focus on what we can do with four wheels.  Perhaps to Musk’s disappointment, his space development program may not be entirely shrouded in secrecy.

In 2016, NASA released a significant number of its formerly-patented technologies into the public domain to “foster a new era of entrepreneurship” in America.  Daniel Lockney, NASA’s Technology Transfer program executive, pointed to the fact that filing patents sets up development roadblocks.  NASA’s intent is not to hinder technology in that way, but rather to spread it “as broadly and widely as possible.”

NASA’s approach seems to parallel Elon Musk’s ideas for Tesla and the future of electric cars.  In contrast, NASA’s approach inherently collides with Elon Musk’s fiercely protected SpaceX program.  The ultimate question can be boiled down to this: which of Elon Musk’s perspectives is right?  If open-sourcing vehicle technology benefits the world, then how much further would the benefits of open-sourcing space technology reach?  Perhaps intellectual property rights have some catching up to do.

Taylor Elkins
About Taylor Elkins (11 Articles)
Taylor Elkins is a third year law student and serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Born and raised in Owasso, Oklahoma, Taylor went to Baylor University where she obtained a degree in biology and political science. During her time at Campbell, Taylor has worked at the North Carolina Department of Justice in the Criminal Appellate Division. She won Campbell's Richard Lord Intramural Moot Court Competition, and is now a member of Campbell's national moot court team. She is interested in patent law as well as appellate advocacy.