Anderson: So what have all your creative people come up with, then? What’s different in your basic technology versus 50 years ago?
Musk: I can’t tell you much. 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. [Wired]
This is probably a smart idea, but it illustrates the advantages of a working patent system. The inventions and advances that Space-X develops are kept secret. Engineers and scientists around the world can’t look at what they did, think of alternatives or better processes, or license technology and add new innovations on top of it. Without a working patent system, innovators have to obscure what they discover and, as Musk does, say very little. This slows down the progress of science.
Many of the critics of the patent system have a peculiar idea that there is some powerful advantage to being the first to market for a new idea. There is not. If Space-X gave its recipes away, Chinese and European companies would copy and cut into their market. Maybe eventually US companies would do the same thing (or put flags on something made in China and mark it up). Anyone who thinks that Space-X could successfully sell rockets that were equivalent to or even not a lot better than those being sold by Lockheed has no idea how markets work. There is a nice sounding myth about how “agile” and “innovative” producers will by some magic be able to outcompete larger companies that copy their work and have far greater marketing, production, and distribution systems (and better political connections). That’s not how hardball works.