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Did Elon Musk steal Tesla? Here’s why the CEO is rebutting long-time allegations on Twitter

Musk’s tweets attacking Tesla cofounder Martin Eberhard are the latest in a decades-long feud for credit over who founded Tesla.

Did Elon Musk steal Tesla? Here’s why the CEO is rebutting long-time allegations on Twitter
[Photo: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson]
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On Sunday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk responded to longtime allegations that he “stole” Tesla from one of the company’s original founders, Martin Eberhard. In reply to a Twitter thread from user @enn_nafnlaus that details a chronological timeline of Tesla’s founding, Musk’s original investment into the startup, and Eberhard’s exit as CEO, Musk said: “When Eberhard was fired from the Tesla CEO role in mid 2007 for providing false information to me & the board, no one left with him. That says it all.

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Musk went on to say: “He plays the ‘poor inventor’ card, but was rich all along & invented nothing (as far as I know). I went down to zero cash or sellable assets in 2008/2009, had no house & had to borrow money from friends to pay rent.”

The tweet is the latest in a reputational battle between Musk and Eberhard for credit over Tesla and the men’s roles in the company. In 2008, Eberhard sued Musk, alleging that he “set out to rewrite history by falsely claiming that he was the founder or creator of Tesla Motors.” In 2009, the duo settled and agreed to share the title of cofounder along with JB Straubel, Marc Tarpenning, and Ian Wright.

Eberhard and Tarpenning incorporated Tesla in 2003. Musk invested $6.5 million soon after and then joined the company, leading Musk and Eberhart to disagree about whether Musk was truly a cofounder of the company. In 2007, Eberhard abruptly left Tesla and Musk became CEO in 2008, though the details of exactly what happened are still up for debate.

The feud has continued more than 15 years later on Musk’s Twitter account and in interviews, where the CEO has continued to air his grievances against Eberhard. In January 2019, he said in a now-deleted tweet that “Tesla is alive in spite of Eberhard, but he seeks credit constantly and fools give it [to] him.” During a podcast released in February 2020, Musk said that Eberhard “is literally the worst person I’ve ever worked with,” to which Eberhard responded to Business Insider by saying that Musk was violating a non-disparagement agreement.

Musk’s tweets have gotten him in legal trouble before. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed fraud charges after Musk tweeted in August 2018 that he had secured funding to take Tesla private at $420 per share. The company’s stock price soared, but Musk had no evidence of such a deal. As part of a settlement with the SEC, Tesla agreed to monitor Musk’s public communications about the company’s performance. After another tweet, he was held in contempt of court (though Musk continues to deny any wrongdoing). In 2019, the two parties came to an agreement on how Musk would be allowed to use his Twitter account.

In addition, Musk’s tweets calling a cave rescue diver a “pedo” and “child rapist” resulted in yet another lawsuit, this time for defamation. Musk won the suit in December 2019.

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Musk’s tendency to fire off tweets that get him in trouble hasn’t had much of an impact on Tesla’s stock price in 2020. During the coronavirus pandemic, the electric car company’s stock has soared from $86.05 at the beginning of the year to nearly $500 at its August peak. It is now the most valuable auto company in the world, though it’s still unclear whether Tesla will be able to live up to its chief hypeman’s promises around million-mile batteries and self-driving cars.

Did Musk actually “steal” Tesla from Eberhard? That remains up for debate. Some passionate internet users are clearly on Eberhard’s side, while others are defending Musk’s honor on Twitter. Regardless of whose story will go down in the history books, there’s no doubt that Tesla has become inextricably linked with its CEO’s name.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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