To patent or not to patent, that is the question…

Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and producer of the terrific Teslar electric car, is also the brains behind SpaceX, the world’s fastest-growing launch services provider with more than 40 space missions under its belt, including a £1.6 billion deal from Nasa to resupply the International Space Station.

I imagined Musk would want to patent and protect his sensational spacecraft designs, Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and the reusable Dragon.

After all, inventors are always asked whether they have a patent on their design if it tickles the fancy of angel investors on BBC’s Dragons’ Den programme.

They would be stunned at Musk’s response, just as I was when reading Patrick Fraser’s recent profile about this seriously rich man who follows his passions, is not afraid to take risks and does things his way; some might say he is foolhardy, but Musk seems to be thriving on his patent=free style of business management.

Musk decided against a patent, even though he faces competition from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft who has announced plans for a commercial spaceship, and Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, who has ambitious plans to reach space too. It’s a cyber race you couldn’t make up!

According to Fraser’s report, Musk refuses to take out patents on many of his technological developments, fearing they could give away secrets.

“Sometimes patents allow people to see the idea well before it comes to market and copy it before you have the chance to achieve a good return on your investment,” he says coolly.

“The other thing is that patents tend to result in time-consuming legal battles. I spend too much time in the courts as it is.”

The last sentence is a reference to the 40-year-old workaholic’s divorce from his first wife and mother of his five sons (twins and triplets), and the workaholic is to divorce his second wife.

I wonder how many other inventors dare to follow Musk’s lead. I guess as space travel is such a small and specialised market, it’s a risk which Musk can take, though ultimately extremely lucrative.

Astronomy and space travel are new topics I am keenly following after attending Prof Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday symposium and meeting Sir Richard Branson who told me that he planned to take the Cambridge physicist into space on his Virgin Galactic. These are all serious plans to begin colonising space, and I’m fascinated by it.

Here is a video of Musk talking about his space mission starting from 7.35 mins in.