a silver car with text overlay

In 1958, people rarely buckled up. While race car drivers and fighter pilots wore harnesses, the seat belts available in cars simply banded across one’s lap. In crashes, they frequently did more harm than good. The sudden pressure put on the abdomen during a crash caused internal injuries.

At the time, Volvo was already pushing its brand as a safety conscious automaker. Its CEO, whose relative had recently died in a car crash, decided to hire Nils Bohlin, a man who had previously designed ejector seats for fighter jets, as chief safety engineer (a new position).

Bohlin turned his attention to seat belts. He had worked with four point harnesses in fighter jets, but doubted that consumers would use such a bulky contraption. “It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective and could be put on conveniently with one hand,” he later told the New York Times.

In 1959, Volvo delivered its first car that used Bohlin’s answer, a three point seat belt that can be seen in the above image and every car sold today. Volvo received a patent for the design in 1962, but rather than hoard it, they gave it to the world. Volvo shared the design, allowed any carmaker to use it, and sent Bohlin on a world tour to encourage its use.

Over the next decades, accolades rolled in. Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimates that Bohlin’s 3 point seat belt has saved over 1 million lives. German patent registrars named it one of the 8 most significant patents of the century – an honor shared with inventors like Thomas Edison.

The story of how Volvo made their life saving patent available to the world (they called it an “open patent”) is a nice one. By showing the counterfactual, it’s also a reminder of what happens when companies do not pull a Volvo and keep their life saving inventions locked up behind patents.

While enforcing patents can seem grinch-like, they do incentivize research to make valuable discoveries in the first place. And as sharing the 3 point seat belt design fit with Volvo’s branding, they had an easier path to the classy move of giving it away. (Hoarding it would also have hurt their safety-conscious brand.) But this reminds us of the importance of policing overzealous patents, and looking for opportunities to incentivize discoveries without the need for patents when appropriate.

It also serves as a reminder of the consequences of enforcing patents for life saving designs or breakthroughs when they seem appropriate. The decision to enforce that patent, even if justifiable, is still a choice.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.