Sir Tim Berners-Lee is something of a personal hero of mine.
When working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the late 1980s, he became frustrated by the challenge of sharing files easily between computers. To do his job efficiently meant learning new computing languages or programs for each computer and often required the help of trained operators for access to files.
At that time, millions of computers were connected in an early version of the internet, but there was no simple way to share information between them. Berners-Lee began working on three techniques (HTML, URL and HTTP) to address the challenge. These remain the foundation of the web today.
Berners-Lee made a critical decision. He recognised that the true potential of his invention would only be realised if everyone, everywhere, could use his technology for free; “Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be universal and at the same time keep control of it.”
He makes a powerful point. If something is to become a global standard, it cannot be restricted or limited. IP protection would have limited the scope of adoption for the World Wide Web.
Elon Musk from Tesla came to a similar, albeit less far reaching, conclusion when he famously posted his blog entitled “All our patent are belong to you” in 2014.
To grow the size of the electric vehicle (EV) market and encourage others to “go electric”, Tesla generated a limited, open-source patent pool for the technologies used in its vehicles. As more companies experiment with his technology and more consumers opt for electric cars, the grid gets bigger and Tesla can compete in a larger area of the automotive market.
As the CEO of an organisation dedicated to helping customers protect ideas and generate value from them, you may wonder if I admire Berners-Lee’s decision. I do. As Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant ramen noodles was quoted as saying; “It would be better to develop as a forest than stand alone as a single tree in a field by maintaining sole control of the technology”.
As open and collaborative invention becomes increasingly common, it is worth remembering Tim Berners-Lee’s decision. IP protection has a critical role to play in building successful businesses, but hoarding patents to block others does little to help innovation.