Leonardo Da Vinci “The natural desire of good men is knowledge.”
What do the 3-point safety belt harness, the world wide web and the polio vaccine have in common? What drives people to give their ideas away for free? What can this teach us in the workplace?
All of our articles and videos, as well as our Inner Ape Tool: To Improve Empathy and Communication have been released for free. We believe that information should be shared. In this final article of our series of twelve articles on leadership, we explain why.
Why release information for free?
Sharing information in engineering
The Volvo 3-point harness seatbelt, which has saved over a million lives, was 60 years old this summer. It was invented by Nils Bohlin, a Volvo engineer, and it cuts your risk of death or serious injury by more than 50%.
Why did Volvo not patent this design? They did, but under an “open patent” freely available to anyone, and within five years it was being used in cars across America and Europe. While Volvo have made no direct money from this game-changing invention, it has cemented the company’s reputation for safety.
Nils Bohlin, inventor of the Volvo three-point harness
In 2016 NASA released 56 formerly-patented technologies into the public domain, including for advanced manufacturing processes, propulsion methods, rocket nozzles and aircraft wing designs. It also created a searchable database for expired NASA patents, which is available here: http://technology.nasa.gov/publicdomain
Sharing information in technology and computing
2019 also saw celebrations of 30 years of the world wide web which was invented by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989. He released the source code for free and, as of November 2018, he estimates that half the world’s population, 4 billion people, were connected online. There are now more webpages than neurons in the human brain. The web’s greatest strength is the ability of anyone to build anything, without asking permission.
Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1994
2012 Olympic opening ceremony
In 2018, Microsoft, which was historically hostile to Linux, made peace and joined The Open Invention Network, the Linux-based patent non-aggression community. Microsoft marked the occasion by releasing 60,000 patents for Linux-related open source projects. Elon Musk also announced that Tesla won’t sue companies that want to use its technology.
Wikipedia was founded in January 2001 with no central organisation which would control editing (unlike existing encyclopaedias like Microsoft Encarta). This allowed the site to grow incredibly rapidly, from 1,000 articles within a month of being founded, to 1 million articles being written by 2006. It is now the world’s fifth most popular website.
Sharing information in medicine
Jonas Salk refused to patent the polio vaccine, famously saying “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” In America in pre-vaccine years, polio paralyzed between 13,000 and 20,000 children annually. The polio vaccine was part-funded by the public: over 80 million people donated money to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now called the March of Dimes, to reflect the many people who only donated the few cents they could spare).
Newspaper headlines celebrate the success of the polio vaccine.
What is the alternative?
The opposite of this philosophy is Disney who keeps a stranglehold on all content it produces. Disney fought for copyright to be much longer than the 14 years it was first given for Mickey Mouse. Every time Mickey Mouse has come close to being released into the public domain, Disney has fought vociferously to extend patent. This protects some rights of the author, but it stifles creativity and storytelling. All the Disney stories were previously in the public domain - Cinderella, Rapunzel, Aladdin - but now Disney owns the rights to its version of these traditional tales.
Another example is research papers, which scientists publish for free, yet publishing companies charge money to access the research. It holds science back and restricts learning and knowledge. We believe great advances could be made if all this information was shared openly and freely.
In summary, why release information for free?
Links to further reading: