Open Source – The Next ‘Organic’


Out of the many social issues present today, I believe one of the gravest to be the mistreatment of intellectual property —any unique product of the human intellect that has commercial value. Such property has proven its ability to shape society whereas elsewhere has been used solely for personal gain. How we choose to share this property has a great impact on public interest but also infringes upon personal rights. How do you balance the demand for private rights with the obligation to further public interest? I think there are varying perceptions of intellectual property and I’d like to contrast the viewpoints of Tesla as a manufacturer of batteries with a generic pharmaceutical company (I’ll reference Martin Shkreli based off his popularity in last weeks postings).

As a leading member in the push to develop next generation technology, Tesla faces many issues regarding the protection of its intellectual property. Due to the success of the model S, Tesla has been widely considered as a producer of electric cars. I’d like to change this perception to that of Tesla as a producer of batteries. One of the toughest challenges faced by Tesla was the the development of a portable battery capable of delivering sufficient power for an extended range. As a battery producer, Tesla has introduced other concepts such as the powerwall that expand upon its battery technology. In terms of intellectual property, Tesla has openly stated that all of its patents have been open sourced. In this way, Tesla is encouraging third party interactions by providing a platform for external developers to use and expand upon. Tesla realizes there are many applications of an efficient battery platform and has commissioned the help of other companies to develop and design influential products. I think this is a business solution that provides the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. Tesla is acting in both self interest and in the best interest of society. Musk has stated that his sole intention is to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport and the fierce protection of intellectual property only acts as a barrier to the common good.

On the other hand, Martin Shkreli and the pharmaceutical industry stand in direct opposition to the views of Tesla. As opposed to the open sourcing of intellectual property the pharmaceutical industry is notorious for exploiting the protection offered by patents. In the case of Shkreli, his company offered a price inelastic good and increased margins to ridiculous levels. Although legally justified, his company  discriminated against those in dire need of the drug and directly opposed the common good in search of personal gain.

Although I’ve presented the methods of two companies on opposite sides of the spectrum, do you think it’s possible for the average company to accept less stringent intellectual property protection if it means society will receive a greater benefit? When I think about this issue, I don’t think it’s far off to expect an intellectual property liberation movement, in which companies use open sourcing to market their products because it’s the “socially conscious” thing to do. Similar to the widespread acceptance of organic products as a higher quality, eco-friendly alternative to GMOs, open sourcing will represent a commitment to selflessness and the public good. Do you see any possible opportunities for companies we’ve studied (Apple, GMCR, Nike) to incorporate the sharing of intellectual property? Looking forward to continuing the discussion in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “Open Source – The Next ‘Organic’

  1. This is a very interesting topic. In this case, I would refer the categorical imperative to determine how a company should go about protecting intellecutal property. If every company were to act as Musk has then the world would be a much better place. I do, however, have trouble determining if and when relinquishing patents, like Musk did, would affect the company’s financial well-being. The pharmaceutical company would have lost a substantial amount of money by giving up the patens. I lean towards companies doing what is best for society and it is clear in both cases what the ethical decision is.

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  2. Elon Musk is becoming a bit of a legend – which is not a positive or negative thing inherently, I will just have to do some research on him and see what he’s all about.

    I like how you’ve thought about this in relation to the market for organic, and it’s an intriguing thought that open source materials could become a market demand for many. The big difference obviously being that this is an intangible difference that takes place along the way to the consumer, I wonder whether it would get as much traction as organic did with those who jumped on the bandwagon of organic just because of the tangible health benefit to them, or because they saw others eating organic and want to be trendy. Organic food represents a kind of tangible, short-term benefit to the individual and doesn’t require a whole lot of sociological imagination. Still, I think that you are right about it being increasingly desired and maybe it could be compared even more closely to a company with sustainable sourcing practices (like Green Mountain Coffee for instance).

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  3. Wow, this class loves Elon Musk…ive always been a fan myself. His story is an interesting one. The guy’s been creating companies his entire life. Pretty cool ones too, and i think thats why he keeps being brought up.

    Anyways, this is a really good post, Ryan. I agree with much of what you said and, yes, intellectual property protection is a very pressing issue. I think your example of the two different industries here gets to the core of the issue–how can you standardize intellectual property laws for a category that is so general? How can the innovation of a drug be protected the same way as a book, electric car, song, etc.? In this case, I dont think that one universal law can exist; it needs to be industry dependent. If Shkreli gives up his patent on daraprime, its gonna be copied and made cheaper by many other pharmaceutical companies. If Musk relinquishes Tesla patents, they’re really aren’t many computers with the resources and expertise necessary to successfully implement that design as well as Tesla could.

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  4. Great post. I agree with Brady that it would far-fetched to have a universal law for companies in as different industries as car manufacturing a pharmaceuticals. Also, for most of the large tech companies, default to open is a core part of business. This is because these companies have a vision of innovation and believe that it’s better for the world in the long-run if everyone has access to the same information to improve and innovate.

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  5. I think the general consensus so far relies on the idea that there isn’t any one universal law regarding the protection of intellectual property. This being the case, who makes the laws? The government? What role does government have in the open sourcing of private intellectual property?

    Eminent domain: the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment or compensation.

    If the government has the right to convert private property when they see fit, to build roads, infrastructure, buildings, etc. does that same principle apply to intellectual property? Obviously this is a grey area with little precedent to rely on, but can you imagine a scenario where the government converted Tesla’s battery technology to the public domain (with adequate compensation) if it meant society saw a huge benefit?

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