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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the patent system has been taking a lot of criticism lately. We’ve watched endless litigation unfold in recent years: Facebook vs Yahoo, Microsoft vs Google, Apple vs everyone, as businesses stockpile patents for the sake of intellectual property battle. But there’s one popular tech company that seems to be fundamentally against using patents as protection: SpaceX.

In a recent interview with Wired, SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk said that the company has no interest in pursuing patents for the private aerospace company. Instead, SpaceX uses trade secrets to protect its intellectual property.

“We have essentially no patents in SpaceX. Our primary long-term competition is in China. If we published patents, it would be farcical, because the Chinese would just use them as a recipe book.”

This is certainly an interesting approach for securing intellectual property. In case you are unfamiliar, for patents to work, an invention must be disclosed to the public in full. Detailed documentation on the invention must be published so that competitors know what is protected, or to be used as evidence in IP court cases. The problem is that international IP laws are shaky at best. It seems that Musk is concerned that if SpaceX were to secure patents on its technology, companies in China would simply rip them off, and the Chinese government wouldn’t enforce SpaceX’s patents.

Trade secrets are nothing new, we’re just not used to hearing about them in light of the patent wars. Until recently, patents were not widely used as ammo against competitors who created products of similar shape. In their original guise, patents actually protected novel inventions. Because of the shift, Musk may be making a very wise business decision in not getting into that fray. Keep the technology hidden, and competitors can’t copy.


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