From the trademark protecting “Star Wars” merchandise to the patent protecting the repositionable adhesive on the Post-It® note, the legal protection of intellectual property drives innovation and fuels our economy.
Today, as we pause to mark World Intellectual Property Day, one man stands as a living example of the creativity that can be unleashed when the law protects and values ideas: standout inventor Lonnie G. Johnson.
Johnson is a leading U.S. inventor who holds more than 80 patents on inventions ranging from popular toys to technology that could revolutionize power generation. Born in Alabama in 1949, he earned degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering from Tuskegee University and has held significant positions at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His projects include the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Mars Observer, and he has been honored several times by NASA for his work in spacecraft system design. He frequently is listed among America’s leading black inventors and Tuskegee University names him among its distinguished alumni.
Johnson now heads two companies that are forging ahead with technology that could reshape the way the world uses energy. One company, Excellatron, is a leader in the field of rechargeable batteries; its thin film batteries provide substantial energy at a greatly reduced size. Meanwhile, Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems has created technology that converts thermal energy to electrical energy, potentially revolutionizing solar power and ocean thermal power generation.
But Johnson’s most famous, and most profitable, invention may seem far removed from serious technical matters. Johnson was granted a patent for what would eventually become the Super Soaker® squirt gun, which he licensed in 1989 to Larami Corporation, later purchased by toy giant Hasbro. Inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2015, the Super Soaker has generated more than $1 billion in sales since its debut. Johnson went on to found Johnson Research & Development, dedicated to bringing advanced technology to the toy and consumer products industries while also using the creativity and innovation of the toy industry to inspire innovations in technology.
Safeguarding those ideas through intellectual property protection has been a vital part of Johnson’s success: “To protect innovative products that are licensed to manufacturing entities, and to establish a competitive advantage over non-patented technologies, Johnson Research maintains intellectual property rights on all of its technologies for toys, consumer, and environmental products. Further protection of Johnson Research’s technology is ensured by the procurement of non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements at the beginning of potential license relationships.”
Patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secret protection laws promote invention and creativity by encouraging creators to invest the time and effort to create new concepts with the promise that they will be able to reap the rewards of their labor. Without such legal protections, intellectual property can be co-opted by others for profit, giving creators little reason to expend their energies and take risks to produce new and innovative ideas.
Thanks to the legal protection afforded to intellectual property, creators like Lonnie Johnson are free to innovate and benefit from those inventions. Today, we take the opportunity to recognize their achievements and acknowledge the important systems that reward pioneering individuals who strive to make the world a better – or, in the case of Johnson and the Super Soaker, “wetter” – place.