Want To Be An Official Tesla Owners’ Club? Be Prepared To Agree To These Terms First

[Update: since making this original post, we’ve obtained the full text of the agreement Tesla is asking clubs to sign. Since it is already public domain, we’re linking to it here.]

For as long as automakers have been churning out cars, loyal customers have been joining together to form owners’ clubs. It doesn’t matter if you happen to drive long-forgotten cars like the Austin Maestro and King Midget or still-in-production cars like the the Nissan 370Z or Ford Focus: someone, somewhere probably has a club that you can join up with, simply for owning a particular vehicle.

Some clubs are specific to a particular make and model like the ones listed above. Others are more varied, offering ownership to anyone with a particular make (or age) of vehicle. In return, clubs often negotiate special deals on behalf of their members for spare parts, servicing or insurance, hold regular meetups and sometimes — with the blessing of the car company in question — join forces to hold events together.

Tesla's fans are a loyal bunch.

Tesla’s fans are a loyal bunch.

Typically, such clubs are run fairly autonomously from the automaker in question. While there’s often a tacit (or formal) understanding between the club and the automaker that the club can use the automaker’s name somewhere in the club name — sometimes even allowing the automaker’s logo to be used in any club artwork — most clubs keep interactions with the automaker to a minimum. And while clubs will sometimes use their collective bargaining power to petition an automaker when things go wrong (as was the case with the various unofficial Nissan LEAF owners’ clubs and forums with reference to premature battery aging of early LEAFs in hot climates) both parties usually treat each other with public (if not always private) respect.

Tesla wants its fan clubs to do more than just promote the brand.

Tesla wants its fan clubs to do more than just promote the brand.

Even in the case of ‘official’ owners’ clubs — in which third-party, independent groups pay a fee or hand over some nominal rights to the automaker in question in order to become the sanctioned portal for owners — members aren’t expected to do more than hand over a monthly membership fee or help out at events to join. And while a few automakers do set up their own in-house owners’ club — where the automaker has ultimate say in how the club is run, how it is structured and what members can and can’t say about the brand — they tend to be less popular than fan-run ones.

It’s very rare indeed for an automaker to insist it approves each and every group seeking to become an owners’ club, rarer still for the automaker to require any official clubs to sign a non-disclosure agreement, insist it helps fight IP infringement, promise to support local legislative efforts and even inform the automaker before selling any products or services to its members.

Yet that’s the price of entry for any Tesla fan club seeking to become legitimately associated with the California automaker.

The shortened version of Tesla's new rules for Tesla clubs.

The shortened version of Tesla’s new rules for Tesla clubs.

It’s all part of a push by Tesla to ensure that any Tesla-branded fan clubs in existence are on its side, rather than fighting against it, and that those same clubs share Tesla’s key values and practices. Yet some of the language used in the legal paperwork Tesla is asking fan clubs to sign suggests Tesla may be wanting its casual fans to do so much more.

In exchange for agreeing to the terms, Tesla has said it will supply the Eligible Club — but not its members — with a code entitling the club as an entity to a one-off, 35 percent discount off merchandise per year, host a club event at a Tesla store or service center of the automaker’s choosing (but warns it will not provide members with pre-release or ‘sneak peak’ information).

We first became aware of the issue at the start of the week, when an anonymous source sent us an excerpt from official documentation Tesla is reportedly asking fan club organizers to sign. But after a little looking, we discovered we weren’t the first to encounter this issue: our friends over at Recode covered it at the end of last month, when it asked if Tesla’s fan base will be as fervent now that Model 3 was readying itself for market.

We’re not sure we can answer that particular question, but we can say that of the Tesla owners we’ve spoken to who are knowledgeable about the membership documentation Tesla began sending Tesla clubs all over the world late last year, some feel Tesla is trying too hard to shoehorn a round peg into a square hole.

Take club structure, for example. As with any hobby or interest, the various different Tesla groups that exist around the world are arranged in a variety of different ways. Some are formally structured, with a officially nominated chairperson, treasurer and secretary. They have bank accounts, legal advisors and a formal membership application process.

Clubs which exist for purely social reasons may have difficulties.

Clubs which exist for purely social reasons may have difficulties.

Others are online forums, where membership requires you to sign up and agree to simple boilerplate terms and conditions.

Others are simply social groups, with no official leader or chairperson. Using existing third-party social media sites and networking tools, they arrange informal drives or coffee meetings every few months, where owners meet, chat about their cars, and enjoy each others’ company.

Yet in order to be considered an eligible ‘official’ Tesla club, Tesla says that an organization must “maintain a minimum membership in excess of 25 Tesla owners,” and that it must “notify Tesla of changes in the Eligible Club’s presidency (or equivalent) and if different from such person, appoint a reliable Club Contact for Tesla to engage with on important issues.”

In other words, Tesla wants to be able to contact someone within each and every club to act as a point of contact. While we’ve not seen the agreement in full, we’d guess such a contact would be expected to communicate directly with Tesla about any concerns or complaints local members had and perhaps even coordinate on any media-related issues such as club press releases.

In a world where there’s a new website, blog or company launching every week specifically designed to target Tesla fans and Tesla customers, it’s hardly surprising that Tesla is looking to formalize the massive number of Tesla fan clubs now in existence around the world.  It’s not surprising either that it is trying as hard as it can to ensure that any media coverage (or club activities) are as positive as possible. Any company in a similar position would likely take similar action.

Other parts of the agreement — ones in which Tesla agrees to license the Tesla name and ‘brand features’ to eligible clubs, subject to approval of placement and context every time its brand image and name are used — are fairly understandable too, as are the requirement that clubs agree to maintain a separate identity and distinctive branding. After all, it makes sense for Tesla to ensure that nobody becomes confused over the difference between a Tesla-organized event and an owners’ club event for example.

But here’s where things start to become a little more unusual. Tesla asks clubs seeking to become official Tesla-sanctioned entities to agree to “assist Tesla in curbing IP infringement and unauthorized or illegal data breaches.”

In its most severe interpretation, an IP infringement could be as simple as a club member sharing information about how Tesla’s massive 17-inch touchscreen system is connected, or how they were able to carry out minor accident repair to their car on the cheap. Projects like the Stretchla (already shut down more than two years ago after Tesla refused to sell parts to the individual in question),  su-tesla, and the Tesla Model S Autopilot Retrofit project could all fall foul of this clause, in short, killing any DIY repair among Tesla owners.

Would you be happy signing up to such an agreement?

Would you be happy signing up to such an agreement?

Then there’s the requirement that clubs provide “reasonable assistance” in supporting local legislative efforts, participation in surveys and focus groups, or helping Tesla to test new software.

In isolation, many owners would freely offer to carry out such duties as a matter of course. Indeed, turning up at the local courthouse or legislature to protest a law which would prevent Tesla from selling direct to customers in their local town or state is something that Tesla’s customers are already well versed in.

But the language used by Tesla suggests that such participation is expected rather than welcomed. Similarly, it expects its customers to participate in surveys and focus groups, or beta-testing of new software.

Another part of the agreement could give Tesla final say over the social media content of the club, and rights-free, perpetual use of any images captured by the club at the event. In other words, free advertising.

Some experts we’ve spoken to even suggest that the wording of Tesla’s agreement could give it authority to demand clubs take down member posts from online forums or refrain from posting content that shows the automaker in a negative light. In other words, agreeing to the document could gag disgruntled owners.

For some, that’s well beyond the relationship an automaker should have with its customer, regardless of their participation in an owners’ club or not.

“The risk of such heavy handed tactics is that they alienate the organic support the drivers are offering [Tesla] in the first place,” electric vehicle advocate and industry analyst Chelsea Sexton told us via email today. “No other automaker would get away with such things.”

And that, we fear, is why Tesla risks leaving a nasty taste in the mouths of those who have thus far, supported its innovative and unusual approach to automotive sales and service.

After all, when you’ve paid upwards of $75,000 to own the world’s most advanced electric car, haven’t you earned the right to join a club celebrating your favorite electric automaker without having to agree to the fine print first?

In preparing this article, we sent Tesla representatives the following questions:

1) Is Tesla seeking to formalize official clubs? 

2) The language indicates that Tesla will expect clubs to sign NDAs in order to be official clubs. Consequentially, does this not mean owners will be unable to vent their frustrations publicly if things go wrong with their cars? 

3) Can you give me an idea of what the goal is for both Tesla and the clubs? 

4) Can you discuss the IP infringement clause? What do you mean here? 

While Tesla responded, stating that it began to (very publicly) create the club process in November 2015, it has not directly responded to our questions or follow up emails on the matter.

Do you belong in a Tesla Owner’s club? Do you think Tesla’s terms are fair for those seeking to officially align themselves with the brand? Or do you think Tesla is stepping over the line and taking advantage of its loyal fanbase?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.


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  • Martin Lacey

    I joined the “Hillman Imp” club about 20 years ago (rear engine with the worlds first aluminium head etc) because I was looking to buy one as an appreciating Scottish classic. For old classic cars I get it… but for a new car? Under warranty?

    Still scratching my head trying to figure that one out!

  • KIMS

    I think the key here is to realize that nobody HAS to make their club an OFFICIAL Tesla club… One way to protest this (by existing groups OR individuals) is to simply not agree to the terms and remain ‘un-official’.. Nothing prevents an un-official club from becoming huge and successful! on the subject of Logo’s etc., you can handle it in various ways… you can get creative, drop the logo(s), OR you can push it, and use it in line with their guidelines and in a ‘fair use manner’ even if you did not get approval. Particularly if you did use it in a fair use manner and not in a way that would likely confuse anyone, they would have a hard time in court if they even went that far.

  • Brock Nanson

    I’m not quite sure why the tone of this article is vaguely negative or suspicious. Tesla is supportive of clubs that share their positive vision for the future. Why would they support efforts that work against or could potentially harm the reputation and vision of the company? As with most of their enterprise, they’re learning as they go. It’s all new. And their cars offer such great potential for hacking (is there another car to which the term ‘hacking’ can be applied?), I would be seriously concerned if they said ‘have at it guys, it’s all good fun’. Too much could go wrong, with serious blowback. We’re not talking about chipping an engine and potentially messing up emissions… hacking this car could kill people, passengers or innocent bystanders. Comparing the potential to hack a Tesla to the other cars out there is like matching up a PC with a digital irrigation timer. The rules are different because the car is different and there really isn’t a suitable precedent to reference. Tesla cars *are* the precedent. I think you’ll see more of the same as other manufacturers play catch-up with digital technology and face the same scrutiny and potential liability. It’s much easier to draft a document that attempts to cover all eventualities and NOT need or use many of the terms/conditions, than offer up a slack agreement that can’t easily be tightened later.

    As a member of one of the new authorized clubs, I have no issues with the terms and conditions. So far, Tesla has been supportive and cooperative – both the ‘mother ship’ and local stores. Until any of the terms are enforced in an unsavory way, I have no reason to complain. They didn’t have to cooperate with us, and we could have gone off and done our own, unsanctioned, thing.

    Positive energy, positive results. I guess the bottom line is that we trust the motives of the company.

    • Brock,

      Thanks for your input. As site editor (and author of this article) I’d like to think that the tone is as fair as it can be.

      You’re right. Tesla is changing the automotive world, and the way it interacts with its customers and fans will undoubtedly be different to every other automaker as a consequence. But perhaps we all need to ask if Tesla’s goals exceed the freedoms of its fans or customers?

      As @disqus_l7JaVVQahe:disqus points out, nobody has to join a Tesla owners’ club or make their existing club an official one — although there’s some questions surrounding the verbiage which could suggest that Tesla will actively discourage non-official clubs and perhaps even ask existing clubs to cease using the Tesla association if they do not wish to join up.

      An open company is one which embraces its critics as hard as its fans. If there’s something wrong with a customer’s car, for example, it’s important to have an environment where customers can talk openly and publicly about their experiences and not make Tesla ownership a walled garden.

      That’s before we even consider the ‘right to repair’ movement, many of whom are already arguing that Tesla’s attitude towards non-Tesla repair is simply too restrictive to allow them to truly enjoy their cars.

      As for hacking? That’s something for lawyers to decide of course. You may own the car, but do you own the hardware inside it? Or do you simply license the technology? I fear that just like computer software, it’s pretty tough to prevent those with the skills and curiosity from opening up pandora’s box.

      And sometimes, as has been proven multiple times in the past, this kind of activity is essential to keep a brand safe and honest. Think of the recent Nissan LEAF security flaw: it wasn’t until the security researchers involved made their findings public (one month after contacting Nissan) that something was actively done about it.

      Tesla is dancing the same dance that every other automaker must between keeping its fans happy and its own interested protected. The question being asked is no if it should happen, but where those lines lay. At what point does corporate interest trump customer freedom?

      • Brock Nanson

        As I said, these cars ARE the precedent. Not just in terms of the obvious EV vs. ICE drivetrains, but also in the way we think about cars and what they should do. I note that Tesla owners have also done some hacking – sanctioned or otherwise – and have provided feedback on security concerns. If the company could somehow limit hacking to whitehats only, they’d likely take a different stance… but obviously that isn’t possible in the real world.

        If you consider the ethics and fears associated with AI, it’s not a big stretch to apply much of the same to the new age of cars. Can you imagine the automotive equivalent to an Internet botnet applied to thousands or millions of cars? That’s damn scary!!!!!! It’s not a concern with the primitive firmware in 99.9% of the cars on the road today. But times are changing. Fully autonomous is coming sooner than we expect. As a result, the whole ‘right to repair’ movement will be playing on a different field. I would expect at least some of the rules will have to change because the game will be significantly different. As noted in my first post, chipping for power is kid stuff compared to what we’re talking about in the next few years.

        This is truly about the tip of the iceberg! There are more questions not yet conceived than questions with or without answers today. Interesting times to be sure…!

  • vdiv

    My problem with this is the appearance (at least) of coercion imposed by Tesla on their supporters which questions their goodwill and motivation to support the company. As EVChels said it will fire back and as a Tesla fanboi (still, I think?) I don’t want that to happen.

  • Hephaestus nauda

    Looking at this, all I can think of is how restrictive and formalised this is. While it may seem harmless now, when Tesla is small, I do not doubt that we would react very negatively if, say, Ford decided to create formal, restricted clubs.

  • @TeslaEu

    “stop…trying to perform repairs on their own.T.uses software to control